Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has a few selection dilemmas as the first Test grows near, few more critical than his centre pairing.
With Kurtley Beale injured, his replacement at number 12 is still unclear, though it appears the primary candidates would be Christian Lealiifano and Samu Kerevi. Who are the five main contenders for that 12 spot?
1. Christian Lealiifano
Christian Lealiifano would appear to be the front runner, given his run of 2016 form. Cheika has tended to go for two ball players in the inside backs since taking over, having Bernard Foley at 10, with Matt Giteau at 12 in the World Cup last year. That would have been the plan if Kurtley Beale was fit for the series and with just 10 days until the first Test, stability will be a priority. The only thing that might hinder Lealiifano’s chances is that he hasn’t been in camp this week, needing to be with his partner as she prepares for the birth of their child. Don’t expect that to count against his chances, but it does rob the Wallabies of a chance to properly run a Foley-Lealiifano combination and Cheika has emphasised the importance of combinations in selection.
2. Samu Kerevi
If Lealiifano doesn’t get the nod, Kerevi would appear to be next in line. There has already been speculation that Kerevi could knock Tevita Kuridrani out of the 13 spot, and you’d be hard pressed not to find space in the 23 for him. Twelve would be a removal from the norm for the 22-year-old and from the Wallabies’ usual template but against England, having two ball-carrying, bustling centres mightn’t be such an issue. It’s going to be a physical battle and the Fijian pairing would bulk up the Aussies’ presence.
3. Israel Folau
Folau has been outstanding in a shift to outside centre in recent weeks and could be a left-field contender for the 12 jersey come Test time. The Wallabies backline structure is relatively fluid and Folau could be deployed out of the midfield in defence, as the Waratahs tend to do with him. A midfield move would be a way to ensure Folau is involved, though he will make an impact wherever he is on the field.
4. Karmichael Hunt
Cheika is a staunch defender of Karmichael Hunt and has been full of praise for the Reds fullback in recent weeks. The Wallabies coach has been on the record throwing Hunt’s name up as a centre contender, despite his best Super Rugby being played at 15. Hunt has played a little bit at centre for the Reds but what attracted Cheika to the move was Hunt’s form in 10 and 12 for Biarritz, when he had a stint in France before switching to AFL. It would be a bold move from Cheika, but it’s not as if he’s afraid of that. Hunt is yet to train with the squad, sidelined by a groin niggle.
5. Rob Horne
One of the best wingers in the world but Horne did cut his Super Rugby teeth in the centres. He was moved back there just a few weeks ago, replacing rookie David Horwitz, and was more than serviceable. He is super effective in defence, knows how to play the position and has familiarity with Foley at 10. An unlikely option, but an option nonetheless.