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Australia's hooker conundrum

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The Wallabies' biggest weakness ahead of the international season

OPINION: When Michael Cheika named his squad to travel to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, there were no questions about who his two premier hookers were.

Captain Stephen Moore was on track for his third World Cup and was nearing a century of caps for the Australian national team. He was a reliable, if not explosive option who had earned the starting hooker berth over a number of seasons.

In contrast, Tatafu Polata-Nau provided explosive impact off the bench and, with 53 caps to his name, wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears either.

The Wallabies had at their disposal a dynamic one-two punch, on par with the best teams in the tournament.

A lot has changed since 2015.

2019’s showcase tournament kicks off in late September, with the first Wallabies squad of the year likely to be unveiled barely a month from now. All the certainty that centred around the hooking berths in 2015 has vanished and who Cheika selects in the Wallabies this year is anyone’s guess.

Moore retired from international rugby at the end of 2017, having notched up 129 caps for the Wallabies. Polota-Nau, now at the ripe old age of 33, left Australia that same year and has represented Leicester Tigers for the past two seasons.

Polota-Nau is still eligible for the Wallabies on account of having played over 60 games for Australia and will likely be selected for this year’s matches. The fact that he struggles for game-time at Leicester, with Tom Youngs the starting hooker and young tyro Jake Kerr also often preferred, doesn’t bode well for the kind of form Australian fans can expect from the aging rake.

You can see why Cheika might opt for a guy like Polota-Nau, however, when you realise that the other options available are still just cutting their teeth at international level.

Since 2015, the Wallabies have blooded four new hookers: Tolu Latu in 2016, Jordan Uelese in 2017, and Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Folau Fainga’a in 2018.

Latu has earned 11 caps in the time since his debut and toured with the Wallabies to the UK at the end of last year. He’s now accrued over 50 caps for the Waratahs and has probably proven himself the most at Super Rugby level out of the recent caps.

Unfortunately for Latu, 2019 hasn’t been a stellar year. The hooker was handed a six-week suspension after round 2 of Super Rugby due to recklessly charging into the back of a maul in the Waratahs’ victory over the Sunwolves. Latu made his return against the Sharks late last month but he’s now facing new disciplinary measures. Only a week ago, Latu was charged with drink driving and is now facing prosecution. The hooker has now been stood down for two weeks and is awaiting further punishment.

The Waratahs still have a slim chance of making the finals, but otherwise they only have four regular season fixtures to play this year. Even if Latu does make it back on the field before the end of the competition, Cheika will have huge reservations about selecting a player who has missed most of the year due to ill-discipline.

22-year-old Jordan Uelese is yet to make an appearance for the Rebels in 2019. Uelese suffered a ruptured ACL shortly before the June test series last year, removing him from the whole international season and only now is he making his playing comeback.

With only two international caps to his name and not many more at Super Rugby level, Uelese is still incredibly inexperienced and would be a huge gamble in a World Cup year.

In Uelese’s absence last year, Paenga-Amosa of the Reds and Folau Fainga’a of the Brumbies were called into the Wallbies. Paenga-Amosa started all three of the Wallabies’ matches against Ireland in the June series but managed only one appearance in The Rugby Championship and was then omitted from the end of year tour squad. It was a quick rise and a sudden fall for the New Zealand-born hooker, with Polota-Nau, Latu and fellow debutant Fainga’a all jumping ahead of Paenga-Amosa in the pecking order. What’s worse is that Paenga-Amosa isn’t even starting matches for the Reds now, with Alex Mafi preferred.

Fainga’a was drafted into the Rugby Championship squad and formed a reasonable combination alongside Polota-Nau, but also found himself losing ground come the northern tour. Fainga’a started against both New Zealand and Italy, but wasn’t used against England or Wales, with Latu and Polota-Nau manning the hooker berth for those two matches.

Ultimately, what Cheika is left to pick from is an experienced but fading player in the form of Polota-Nau, and a bunch of young, unproven rakes – some of who have played very little rugby this year.

All this is to say that Cheika is in a very difficult position in selecting his squad. Does he opt for Latu, the most experienced of the younger breed, even though he’s faced a number of issues this year? Does he trust in one of the more recently capped players and hope that they can get up to speed in the short time remaining in Super Rugby? Or does he simply go with the form hooker in Super Rugby, regardless of how many caps he may have?

This is all assuming that Polota-Nau is a given in the squad – but Polota-Nau has been rocked by injury in recent times and may struggle to even make it through the World Cup in Japan.

There’s plenty of positions up for debate in the Wallabies squad, but there’s probably none more problematic than the hooking role. If there’s one group of players that Cheika will be watching more carefully than any others over the next few weeks, it will surely be the men running around in the no. 2 jerseys.

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The Wallabies' biggest weakness ahead of the international season