The Wallabies squad to travel to the World Cup in Japan will be named on Friday. Head coach Michael Cheika will already be able to pencil in the side that would run out in knockout matches, but it’s the players on the edge of the squad that he may still not be sure about.
Cheika and his fellow selectors have called upon 33 players to wear the gold jersey this year – and there are some men who haven’t taken the field but are likely to be included in the announcement on Friday.
So, who will be on the plane when it departs for Tokyo in less than a month’s time?
Certainties: Tolu Latu, Folau Fainga’a
Possibilities: Jordan Uelese, Tatafu Polota-Nau
Taken to last World Cup: 2
Surprisingly, Michael Cheika will probably be quite happy with what he’s got available to him at hooker. Heading into the international season, the Wallabies had plenty of question marks over the 2 jersey.
Tolu Latu had discipline issues and Folau Fainga’a was still very wet behind the ears. Arguably those problems still exist – but neither of them caused issues during any of the Wallabies’ games to date.
These two are locked in for the World Cup, and it’s hard to see Cheika opting to take a third hooker. The only plausible rationale would be to get some more experience into the mix in the form of Tatafu Polota-Nau – but that scenario seems considerably less likely after the fairly assured performances of Latu and Fainga’a.
The easiest way to describe the Wallabies propping stocks is ‘fine’. Don’t let their demolition at the hand of the All Blacks’ over the weekend dissuade you – they’re all decent scrummagers. They may just need to spend a bit more time adjusting to the new axial loading laws (although referees will all have different ideas of how to judge them). Around the field they’re also up to standard – especially perpetual impact player Taniela Tupou.
Allan Alaatoa, Taniela Tupou, Scott Sio and James Slipper all received ample game time during this year’s internationals and Cheika was quick to talk up Sekope Kepu at the press conference following this past weekend’s match. The only spanner in the works will be the availability of Tom Robertson – but his lack of game time will probably count against him.
Izack Rodda has started all four matches for Australia this year and Rory Arnold – who has been compared to Brodie Retallick – would have done the same if it weren’t for a minor injury keeping him out of the final Bledisloe Cup test.
Once Adam Coleman had overcome his own injuries, he slotted straight back into the team, suggesting he’s still very much in Cheika’s plans. Coleman’s inclusion should worry both Rob Simmons and Luke Jones, who each clocked up fewer than 80 minutes of game time over the four fixtures.
Will Skelton has also emerged as a contender for a spot, with Rugby Australia trying to lure him into signing on for an Australian Super Rugby side for next year. Skelton has rejected various approaches over the last 12 months, however, and will probably do the same in the coming days.
If Cheika opts for just three locks at this year’s World Cup, as he did in 2015, then it’s hard to go past the trio of Arnold, Rodda and Coleman. Luke Jones may come into consideration due to his ability to cover the loose forwards.
The trio of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper and Isi Naisarani have started all four matches together this year. They’ll all be taken to the World Cup. Salakaia-Loto is incredibly lucky that there aren’t any obvious alternatives for the blindside flank, because his performances have been far from impressive.
David Pocock is an absolute certainty – if he’s fit. There have been various assurances that the breakdown tyro will be available, but there have also been multiple false starts this year for the man who’s managed just 26 appearances in gold over the last four seasons.
Should Pocock not be on the plane to Japan then Liam Wright will likely travel. Wright’s been deemed the third-best openside flanker in Australia by Cheika and made his debut off the bench over the weekend. There’s a chance he could be a part of the squad even if Pocock is fit, due to the expectation that Pocock would slot in at the back of the scrum.
Other options include Pete Samu and Rob Valetini. Samu missed out on the Bledisloe Cup squad but that may well have been due to the injury that kept him out of the earlier Rugby Championship games. Valetini was given no opportunities during this year’s internationals and it would be a bit of a surprise if he gets the nod.
Jack Dempsey, who was part of the initial Rugby Championship squad but missed out on the refined Bledisloe team, would also be a somewhat shock selection. It’s one that Cheika is evidently still considering making, given that the flanker was namedropped upon the Wallabies’ return to Sydney after the thumping at Eden Park.
Perhaps the versatile Luke Jones will be called upon during the pool stages of the tournament.
Certainties: Will Genia, Nic White
Possibilities: Joe Powell
Taken to last World Cup: 2
It’s hard to imagine a situation where Cheika opts for more than two halfbacks at the World Cup – and Genia and White have their spots locked down.
Certainties: Christian Lealiifano, Matt To’omua
Possibilities: Bernard Foley
Taken to last World Cup: 2
It would be an absolutely huge call for the Wallabies to not take Bernard Foley to the World Cup.
Foley has been a major player for the side since his debut in the latter stages of 2014 and Cheika, his former Waratahs coach, has been a big fan. Even when the Wallabies have trialled other players at 10, Foley has sometimes been wedged into the team at second five.
With Scott Johnson coming on board as a selector, it looks like Foley has lost favour and Christian Lealiifano has seemingly eclipsed him as the side’s best first five. Matt To’omu has been preferred for the bench spot, too, which make Foley the third-best option in the squad.
If the Wallabies opt for just a pair of 10s, then it’s likely Foley will be the unlucky man.
Certainties: Samu Kerevi, James O’Connor, Tevita Kuridrani
Possibilities: Jordan Petaia
Taken to last World Cup: 4
The biggest concern that Cheika will have in the midfield is finding the right balance. Samu Kerevi has been one of the Wallabies’ best performers this year and will be the go-to second five for the World Cup. Tevita Kuridrani offers a similar playstyle but from the 13 jersey. Their combo has been tried a number of times without ever really clicking.
James O’Connor’s return to Australia has allowed him to slot in alongside Kerevi against the All Blacks and he looked like one of the most assured players on the park in both outings.
That leaves perhaps one midfield berth remaining – and that gives Cheika the opportunity to try out wunderkind Jordan Petaia, who is still yet to make his debut for the Wallabies. There’s a chance that Petaia may be seen as too high a risk, but the pool stages of the tournament are as good a springboard into test rugby as any other occasion.
Only two players have spent all 320 minutes of the Wallabies’ season on the park: captain Michael Hooper and utility Reece Hodge.
Hodge looks like the selectors’ favourite to camp out on the left wing for the World Cup with the right wing likely to be contested between Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty. Haylett-Petty was given the first opportunity of the year – courtesy of Koroibete being unavailable due to the birth of his child – but failed to flatter in a weak performance against the Springboks. Haylett-Petty’s 30 caps should ensure he’s on the plane to Japan.
Kurtley Beale will start at fullback in the big matches but Hodge, Haylett-Petty or even Tom Banks could also be used at 15.
There aren’t a whole lot of other options for the Wallabies in the outside backs. Adam Ashley-Cooper could be in the squad due to his experience, but he hasn’t exactly returned to Australia rejuvenated. Jack Maddocks was also in the original squad for this year but was dropped for the Bledisloe series – meaning his chances of making the Wallabies World Cup squad are slim at best.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.