It’s only a matter of a few weeks until Michael Cheika announces his initial Wallabies squad and he’ll be looking at the big picture as well as the upcoming England Series.
The big picture this year includes three Tests against England, a tough Rugby Championship and a massive end of season tour.
What everyone should understand is that the form of the Super Rugby teams is no real barometer for the chances of the Wallabies. When Australia has its best 15 available, it can match any team in the world.
When he picks his squad of between 36-40 players for the initial squad, Cheika will do it in two sections. He’ll have the squad he wants for England while casting a strong eye over the ‘possibles’ and the ‘maybes’, particularly for the tour at the end of the year where depth is going to be all important.
Increasingly as Rugby has evolved, the teams with the greatest depth are the teams which have sustained success throughout the course of the year. In years gone by the Wallabies played only half a dozen Test matches a year, whereas nowadays they are playing up to 15 Tests in a year after a full Super Rugby season.
One thing Cheika has shown is that he is loyal to the players who have done the job for him in the past, so I wouldn’t expect too many surprises in his squad for England.
Starting with the front row, Stephen Moore is cemented in as the hooker and Captain and is one of the form players in the world at his position. There is a great crop of young hookers coming through in Australian Rugby but Moore’s back-ups will again be James Hanson and Tatafu Polota-Nau.
At loosehead prop it’s a toss of the coin between James Slipper and Scott Sio for the starting role and Greg Holmes is the first choice tighthead. Cheika will no doubt have his eyes on Sekope Kepu over in England, but with Kepu coming off a full season over there, common sense tells me that he’ll likely resist bringing him back into the squad until August.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see him look to an experienced backup tighthead like Ben Alexander for the initial squad, even though it appeared he had moved on from the Brumbies prop last year. Again, there are some good young props coming through but my tip is the likes of Tom Robertson and Sam Talaki will wait their turn.
In the second row, Sam Carter will get the nod as the starter for the injured Kane Douglas alongside Rob Simmons. Cheika has shown that he likes a high-work rate lock and while Carter is a slightly different player to the hard-grafting Douglas, he’s got the experience. I’d expect Adam Coleman from the Force to make the initial squad.
He also likes a very strong impact player off the bench and one player that could be a factor is Lopeti Timani from the Rebels. He has shown loyalty in Will Skelton, but the giant Waratahs lock hasn’t been in the best form and has only got a few weeks to make up a lot of ground on his main rivals. James Horwill is playing well for Harlequins, so I wouldn’t completely dismiss his chances of playing for the Wallabies again this season either.
In the back row, Cheika found the mix that worked and he’ll stick with the Fardy-Hooper-Pocock combination. The challenge is that four of the best back rowers in Australia are all no.7’s in Hooper, Pocock, Gill and McMahon. He’ll be looking to add some size into the back row mix as well and I’d expect Ben McCalman to be there in the extended squad maybe along with his Force teammate Angus Cottrell.
Outside of the usual crowd, Waratahs pair Jed Hollaway and Jack Dempsey have been impressive in their first season but I don’t think he’ll go to either of the youngsters this year.
The real dark horse in the back row is Cliffy Palu, and it really wouldn’t surprise me to see him jag a spot on the bench for the first Test against England. In Cheika’s words, Cliffy is a “finisher” and one of the players that can have a real impact in a big Test.
Turning to the backs, this is where the picture isn’t so clear.
Will Genia is Australia’s best halfback and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him return as soon as possible. Outside of Will, Nick Phipps is the clear next best option. I like Nick Stirzaker but he has struggled to some extent this year and started the season slowly after returning from injury.
Bernard Foley will be the starting number 10 and I was interested to read some comments from Kurtley Beale yesterday that he wants to start, and in my view probably deserves to start the first Test in the form he’s been in for New South Wales. Having said that, he offers incredible value for the Wallabies off the bench where he can cover 10, 12 and 15. Beale is an invaluable player for Australian Rugby, offering experience across all three positions.
If Beale doesn’t start at 12, where he has performed very well for the Waratahs, this is a position where Cheika may take a leap of faith and look to Samu Kerevi.Kerevi should be fit in time for England, and after being involved with him last year, I know he prefers playing at 13, but I feel his skill set and what he offers makes him much more suited to inside centre at this stage of his career. The Fijian connection of Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani is a potentially lethal centre pairing for the Wallabies. The other big contender at inside centre is Matt Toomua who plays every direct and was used as an impact player during the World Cup.
Chances are we’ll see a new winger on display in the first Test against England. Joe Tomane would have been a certainty but has had his chance to cement one of those spots cruelled by injury. This leaves a big opportunity for Rob Horne and potentially even a chance for someone like Eto Nabuli, who plays on the left, make his debut.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the best players available for those wing spots are the incumbents Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper, but I think it’s more likely they are in the plans for later in the year.
Rather than bringing players directly back from Europe, I’d look to freshen those players up and bring them home for The Rugby Championship and go with the players who have performed well in Super Rugby for the England Series.
The question for Cheika is whether the thought of Eddie Jones baring down on him for this series will push him to call the European-based players back early. I’m certain, if we were heading into a series against Scotland, Wales or Ireland, that he wouldn’t even be considering it.
At fullback the obvious choice is Folau and I’d look to bring the Force’s Dane Haylett-Petty into the squad as an understudy. Karmichael Hunt has definitely improved and he’ll need to play strongly over the next four weeks to come into serious calculations, although he is well regarded by the Coach.
So to sum it up I think Michael Cheika will go largely with the tried and true for the England Series and will look to the rest of the year ahead with his extended squad. He will have segmented the season into three blocks and will continue to focus on building depth in his squad, something he has spoken a lot about.
John 'Knuckles' Connolly, was a former Wallabies and Queensland Reds Head Coach, and has in the past worked with the Stade Français, Swansea RFC as well as Bath Rugby.
The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.