Wallabies back rower David Pocock is sticking around until 2019 but a sabbatical in 2017 will leave an open door for someone to step through.
Pocock is considered one of the best openside flankers in the world but proved his versatility, destroying all comers in the breakdown at number eight for the Wallabies in last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said one of the silver linings of Pocock’s one-year absence is the chance it could give to an emerging talent to stake a Wallabies came.
“I didn’t feel like it was very hard to convince me that that was a good move and it only gives opportunity to others while he’s not playing,” he said.
“That’s something else that it’s probably good to know is if someone else can step up and take advantage of that opportunity, not just the opportunity for David himself to be away.”
So who could be in contention to step up in Pocock’s place in 2017?
1. Sean McMahon
The Rebels flanker seems the Wallabies back row heir apparent, after his promising cameos in the World Cup. Just 21, McMahon would thrive on more opportunities. Whether he could fit in a starting team alongside Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy remains to be seen, with little experience at eight but he has previously voiced his willingness to cover any position in the back row and is the type of player who could make an impact across any of those spots.
2. Jarrad Butler
The Brumbies battle between Jarrad Butler and Ita Vaea could go some way to settling this Wallabies level debate. Butler started off the bench in the opening two rounds for the ACT franchise but an injury to Vaea gave him an opportunity. His versatility is valuable as well, having filled in for Pocock at openside, winning the 2014 Brett Robinson Award playing mainly at seven. Has been sounded out about Wallabies selection and picked in last year’s Barbarians team, coached by Cheika, straight out of NRC.
3. Ita Vaea
Probably the only specialist number eight up for the role, though his battle with Butler could prove decisive. An inspirational comeback turned into an impressive 2015 season and won him first dibs on the number eight spot in round one. A dislocated finger has set him back but the powerful Brumbies backrower will definitely be in the Wallabies frame in the near future.
4. Liam Gill
Michael Cheika has indicated he would be potentially making inquiries with the soon to depart Gill, with Pocock’s year off confirmed. The Daily Telegraph reported Cheika would be contacting Gill, who has committed to a deal in the French top 14 for 2016/17 and beyond. Gill would be among the most obvious replacements. His pilfering skills were invaluable for the Queensland reds last year and it’s clear how much they miss him during his absence so far. Well short of the 60-cap eligibility mark to be able to return from overseas, though.
5. Ben McCalman
Along with McMahon, McCalman played a vital role off the bench for the Wallabies in the World Cup. Was a rock in defence, epitomised by a gladiatorial effort against Wales. Replaced Pocock in the starting side against Scotland in the World Cup quarter-final. Turning 29 in 2017, though, he wouldn’t exactly be an investment in the long-term Wallabies back row future.
6. Jordy Reid
The other half of the Melbourne Rebels’ Bash Brothers, Jordy Reid has become a strong physical presence for his side. Already a cult figure, with his signature dreads, Reid forced his way back into the Rebels’ starting side against the Reds and impressed enough to stay there. The 24-year-old is well and truly on the radar of the Wallabies hierarchy.
7. Leroy Houston
The search for a Pocock replacement doesn’t have to be restricted to these shores, with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika already showing a penchant for luring Aussies abroad back home. Houston is one possibly being targeted by the Wallabies, as he currently plies his trade for Bath in the Premiership. At 29 now, though, he would be a flash in the pan recruit for the national side.
8. Matt Hodgson
The Western Force's most-capped player could definitely be in the mix for a Wallabies call up. Last played for the Wallabies in 2014 and was part of the first extended Wallabies squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup adds value on and off the field. Wallabies would not lose any aggression with Hodgson in the side - the veteran already leads the Super Rugby competition in tackles.
The absolute roughies
1. George Smith
Some players are likened to a fine wine, as they enrich their Rugby legacy with age. George Smith would more realistically be likened to the ‘81 Toyota Hilux that no one can bring themselves to sell - sturdy, reliable and possessing an engine that never seems to deteriorate, a Rugby gift that keeps on giving. Smith is not just playing in the Premiership for Wasps, he is dominating almost every week. It might be slightly fanciful to suggest he could make a Test return (though it would be welcomed by many fans), but with 111 Tests to his name, only retirement would rule him out altogether.
He’s only been out of Australia for one season, having played in the Japanese Top League over summer, but he was also playing Test Rugby as recently as last year. A foot injury ended his season with the NEC Green Rockets, leaving the ex-Reds and Rebels rep at somewhat of a loose end. He would have to be contracted to a Super Rugby club ahead of the 2018 season to be considered eligible, but it wouldn’t be an altogether outrageous possibility.