Folau in the mix for Wallabies centre vacancy

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika says he is considering Israel Folau as an option to fill the vacancy at outside centre for the opening Bledisloe Cup match.

Despite a long and staunchly-held belief that Folau's best position is fullback, Cheika added his name to a list of players he is looking at to replace injured no.13s Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani.

Kerevi played in the jersey in the June series against Ireland but was lost for the year when he ruptured a biceps muscle in July. 

Kuridrani was the clear front-runner thereafter but the Brumbies' veteran was also lost for three months after he injured a pectoral muscle in the last minute of the last round.

"That's footy. That's the way it goes. It can happen and usually does happen like that, in my experience. You lose one in one position and then lose another one straight away," Cheika said.

"What it does do is open the door for someone else. There are a few options for us to take, to fill that opportunity. We will have a look over the next few weeks to see who fits the mould best for the type of game we will be looking to play against New Zealand."

Asked to nominate who was in the mix, Cheika said Waratahs no.13 Curtis Rona "is probably the main guy" and Reece Hodge was also an option, despite the fact they were likely to play the Rebels utility at no.10 in the Wallabies trial on August 3.

"We have been focussing him more in the playmakers role so it would be a pretty big change to what he has been at. Then the other guy who has played 13 is Israel," Cheika said.

"He has played there before. It's no secret I have preferred him at 15 but he has played there. Guys who have played on the wing, we will see where they're at

"We need to create a bit of depth there, too. We could get another injury, you just don't know. You have to create a few different options there going forward."

It's unlikely Cheika will shift Folau to centre, given his value in counter-attacking, and defusing high balls, while stationed at the back.

The lesser-acknowledged options could be Sefa Naivalu and Henry Speight.

Speight played two of his 19 Tests at centre in 2015, against USA and then against Uruguay in the World Cup.

Naivalu once came on as a centre against the All Blacks, and both have spent time in the spot at Super Rugby level.

With Bernard Foley unavailable for the Wallabies trial, Cheika said he was looking at Hodge and Reds youngster Hamish Stewart as the two playmakers.

"We can mix and match," he said.

"I have Hamish Stewart in the camp here. He's a good young player. I think having some experience in this type of match will be good for him as well. Between the two of them I think we can mix and match and see what we need."

Cheika said the lesson learned in their series loss to Ireland in June was to have "more of a clinical attitude about finishing". 

"I thought we did a lot of good things in that series. That's what made it even tougher to take. But the pain of that failure can only spur us on," Cheika said.

"The squad we built are getting more mature and more experience. That squad of forwards in the Irish series, there were only three players over 26 years of age.

"Yes, it is going to be a huge challenge but that's what it is, and I can see they're all up for it already. We have to be tight on the reins to make sure we don't get too pumped up, too early."

Quizzed as to whether four victories by Australian teams against Kiwi Super Rugby sides - and some close-run losses - gave more confidence about the Wallabies' chances in the Bledisloe Cup, Cheika said it was the same belief as 2017.

"Last year when they won no games we believed it can be done as well. And we weren't far away from getting it done, in the end, when you look at," he said.

"But they're going to improve as well, New Zealand. That's something you always have to be mindful of. So our rate of improvement has to be greater, when it all boils down to it. And then the way we perform on the night itself: the composure, the focus and the intensity we can bring on the night."

The Wallabies play an internal trial at Leichhardt Oval on Friday August 3, kicking off at 6:45pm AEST, LIVE on RUGBY.com.au.

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