Michael Cheika named 10 uncapped players in his initial 39-man squad for the England Series. He then added an 11th when Reece Hodge was drafted in for his injured Melbourne Rebels teammate Mike Harris.
At the time it might have appeared to some that we’d see some big changes in the Wallabies team for the first Test on Saturday, but I don’t expect to see more than two new faces in the starting XV.
If you look at Cheika throughout his coaching career, he’s shown strong loyalty to players who have done the job in the past and a tendency to stick to what he knows. As a coach he’s certainly not unique in that regard but there’s no doubt he has favoured the tried and true.
Cheika will announce his team on Thursday and he has only had a few positions to mull over. Here’s where I think he’ll go with his team, along with a few of my thoughts on who should be in the gold jersey on Saturday.
This is one of the most experienced front row groups in recent years for Australia and they will hold us in good stead for the scrum battle. Stephen Moore is the captain and Tatafu Polota-Nau is his trusty deputy at hooker.
At loosehead it is a battle between Scott Sio and James Slipper for the starting position and I think Cheika will stick with Sio, who he favoured during the World Cup. I’d probably go with Slipper in my starting side, he’s Australia’s most experienced prop and has come into some strong form at the back end of the Super Rugby season.
Again, it’s a toss of the coin for the number three jersey with Sekope Kepu joining the squad this week. Sekope’s condition on his return might determine whether he or Greg Holmes earns the start. Personally I’d go with Holmes, he’s in career-best form and Cheika will need to be convinced on Kepu’s form after a tough season with Bordeaux. France is a different beast though, it doesn’t suit everyone, which would have been a factor in Kepu’s decision to return home.
Rob Simmons is a certainty and his starting partner and the make-up of the bench is a big question. Simmons has struggled a bit for Queensland this year but he’s played 60 Tests and generally plays well for Australia. Believe it or not, I think Cheika will pair Simmons with James Horwill. Horwill offers the abrasive style that Cheika would have got from Kane Douglas, who was his first-choice lock during the World Cup. For that same reason, I think Will Skelton will hold down a bench spot and Sam Carter will probably be the unlucky one who misses out. The dark horse is Carter’s Brumbies teammate Rory Arnold who has had a strong training camp and might jag a spot on the bench.
Why change a successful formula? Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock will be back again. On the bench it’s a tougher call. Cheika likes Sean McMahon but depending on his final make-up he may need someone on the bench to cover the lineout as well, so Ben McCalman could be a better option. The one player I’d like to see on the bench is Wycliff Palu. I can hear you all now screaming “Cliffy is past it”, but he’s a big game player. He’s not an 80-minute player, but he can do some serious damage in 20 minutes at the back end of a Test.
Again, these are already picked with Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley to start and Nick Frisby to get his debut off the bench at some stage.
At inside centre it’s a choice between the silky skills of Christian Lealiifano and the brute force of Samu Kerevi. Christian has missed all of training and is on the back foot, but Cheika prefers the two playmakers so he may go with the Brumbies utility to complement Foley. I’d like to see Kerevi get the start. He and Tevita Kuridrani would form the biggest centre combination Australia has ever had. The power that these two provide in the backs would give us an edge over England, who are missing their main man Manu Tuilagi.
Rob Horne is one of them, then it becomes tough. Taqele Naiyaravoro’s return looks ominous but again it comes down to whether Cheika trusts his fitness. I think he’ll go with Force fullback Dane Haylett-Petty on the other wing and I believe this is the right move. It’s been proven that fullbacks can handle the switch to wing, look at Corey Jane as one of the more recent examples. Haylett-Petty has played very well for the Force and is a better option than his teammate Luke Morahan, who has a tendency to float in and out of games.
Israel Folau is locked in. If Karmichael Hunt earns a spot on the bench he’ll be very lucky. If he does, it will be purely on a ‘Coach’s call’, as Cheika has a high opinion of him. Karmichael hasn’t set the world on fire for Queensland, but then that’s not all his fault. Hodge, who I mentioned at the start of the article, is a big chance to grab one of the bench spots with his ability to cover a range of positions.
So I’ve gone for two debutantes in the starting team, Dane Haylett-Petty and Samu Kerevi in the backline, with a hugely experienced pack.
The Wallabies have traditionally taken a bit of time to work into the June series, but with Eddie Jones driving a personal mission this year is a different proposition. Outside of a Lions series, this is the most exciting June series we’ve had in my memory. Australia are the favourites with the bookies and won handsomely in England, but this series is going to be a lot closer than many people think.
John Connolly’s first Test team
1. James Slipper 2. Stephen Moore (c) 3. Greg Holmes 4. James Horwill 5. Rob Simmons 6. Scott Fardy 7. Michael Hooper 8. David Pocock 9. Nick Phipps 10. Bernard Foley 11. Rob Horne 12. Samu Kerevi 13. Tevita Kuridrani 14. Dane Haylett-Petty 15. Israel Folau