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Young midfielders in line to play for Wallabies against Japan

By Alex McLeod

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The Wallabies could be in line to field a youthful midfield against Japan in a fortnight’s time as confusion reigns over Samu Kerevi’s availability for the test in Oita.

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Australia will open their end-of-year tour against the Brave Blossoms on October 23 in what will be their first visit to Japan since they were knocked out of the World Cup quarter-finals by England two years ago.

However, despite naming his 37-man squad for the tour on Friday, Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie remains in the dark as to whether his overseas-based players will be free to play in that clash as the fixture falls outside of the November test window.

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Under World Rugby’s Regulation 9, that means the clubs of the six foreign-based players in the Wallabies squad – Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi, Sean McMahon, Will Skelton, Rory Arnold and Tolu Latu – are under no obligation to release those players for the Japan test.

Rennie is already resigned to the fact that, due to Covid-19 restrictions, he will be without his three France-based players – Skelton, Arnold and Latu – until after his side’s match against Scotland on November 7, but he is unclear whether he will have the services of his Japan-based players for the opening match of the tour.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Rennie revealed he is in regular contact with Suntory Sungoliath about the availability of Kerevi and McMahon, as well as the Kintetsu Liners about the availability of Cooper.

“The key thing around this is we’re trying to create a strong relationship with the Japanese clubs too, because while, from a Reg 9 point-of-view, we can grab them, they’re their primary employer at the moment,” Rennie said.

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While they’ve been very supportive, they’ve also got their own programmes to focus on and they want to be successful as well and I guess they want their best players fit and available, so it’s important we establish a good relationship there.”

While the Wallabies have James O’Connor and Reece Hodge to cover for Cooper at first-five, and plenty of options in the loose forwards to cover for McMahon, Kerevi’s potential absence could present a chance for one of Australia’s youngsters to start against Japan.

Kerevi impressed from second-five throughout the Rugby Championship and, in doing so, formed a strong partnership with inexperienced centre Len Ikitau.

Ikitau could be forced to partner with a new midfielder against Japan, though, as Rennie has included two uncapped entities in the form of Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese.

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Foketi was part of the Rugby Championship squad but never took to the field against the All Blacks, Springboks or Los Pumas, while Perese is in line for his test debut after being robbed of that landmark earlier this year due to a dislocated shoulder.

Perese was a standout for the Waratahs in a winless Super Rugby season, but has plenty to make up for in terms of match fitness after having not played first-class rugby since June.

Ikitau, Foketi and Perese will also have competition for a starting place in the midfield from Hunter Paisami, who is the most experienced of the quartet but hasn’t played for the Wallabies since their 57-22 thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks in Auckland two months ago.

Paisami struggled to retain his place in Australia’s match day squad after leaving the Wallabies set-up to attend the birth of his child during the Rugby Championship, but the upcoming Japan test could allow him, or the other midfield candidates, to state their case for inclusion in future teams.

“Obviously a question mark around when Samu’s back. Genuine clarity, we’re not sure if he’ll be available for the Japanese game,” Rennie said of Kerevi, who the Wallabies boss said is close to shaking off an ankle injury sustained while playing against Los Pumas last week.

“[He] technically falls out of Reg 9 as well, so we’re talking with Suntory around that.

“We’ve obviously got Lalakai, who injured a finger, left us from Perth, so he’s been away, hasn’t played much footy since that time, and, likewise, with Izzy Perese, he had a shoulder reconstruction.

“He’s been back in contact for the last couple of weeks and he’s ticked every box, but, again, hasn’t played a lot of footy, so we’ve got a lot of work to get into Izzy, and whether he’ll be ready in 10 days to play test footy, that’s a question mark.

“Hunter’s a very good player, but … how well the guys have really grabbed their opportunities, he gets a chance to remind us what he’s capable of.”

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Young midfielders in line to play for Wallabies against Japan

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