Will Skelton could be a shock inclusion in the Wallabies’ World Cup squad with Michael Cheika revealing the Saracens lock is still in the selection mix.
Cheika threw up Skelton’s name when discussing the selection of his 31-man World Cup squad, which will be named at an event in Sydney on Friday.
Speaking at Sydney airport after flying back from the Wallabies’ 36-0 loss in Auckland, Cheika said the selection panel of himself, Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor would meet on Monday and begin finalising who’ll get golden tickets on the plane to Tokyo next month.
Asked whether players who had not played for the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup campaigns were still a shot at making the squad, Cheika dropped the name of Skelton; who was in the Wallabies’ squad at the 2015 World Cup.
“(Jack) Dempsey, (Tom) Robertson, not sure even if Will Skelton is still on the table,” Cheika said.
"We’ll have a look and see what the discussion is there over the next day or two, before the squad is selected. If the situation about coming back to Australia is any clearer."
It was revealed in May there were moves to get Skelton back in the World Cup mix, by way of him signing to make a return to Australian rugby next year.
But even with talk bubbling fairly recently it was still on the cards, it had been presumed because Skelton had not returned and played with the Wallabies in the last month, the possibility had died off.
The damaging form of Skelton for Saracens over the past year must seriously appeal to Cheika, however.
Asked if Skelton would seriously be considered given he’d go into the World Cup with next-to no time spent in Wallabies camp, Cheika said: "He would be, if his contract situation was right, to meet the rules.”
"That would be the only way, and look, that’s highly unlikely right now with only a day or two to go. But more to pick from, the more options that gives us all the time,” he said.
There was speculation Skelton wanted to sign to return in 2021, as opposed to next year as the Rugby Australia laws demand, but Cheika said that wasn’t an option.
"The rules aren’t going to change for that. There have been guys slugging it out here for four years doing their bit, the rules aren’t changing,” Cheika said.
Those same guys who’ve slugged it out for four years would probably not be appeased by Skelton parachuting back in, regardless of what year he returns. But it may be a sign Cheika is still not happy with the depth of his lock group, which currently has Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Adam Coleman and middle-rower Luke Jones.
Cheika said no player would have a line put through their name based on the performance at Eden Park, but it would go into the broader context of form this year when it comes to nailing down 31 names.
Cheika said injured duo David Pocock and Jordan Petaia were both definitely in the mix, too, and he said Jack Maddocks’ versatility meant he was still a name on the table.
Maddocks hasn’t played at all this winter but Cheika noted many of the back-three hybrids in the wider squad hadn’t played big minutes, either.
The selection panel will start with the usual squeeze point of deciding whether to take three halfbacks and/or three hookers, and then go from there.
"There are still some highly competitive positions and again, it (rests) on the configuration of the squad, how many forwards to how many backs, the specialist positions - how many of those,” Cheika said.
"Without giving away too much you’d imagine they’ll be the first discussions had and from there we’ll decide which players, because that decides how many you’ll have in the rest of the squad.”
Most World Cup coaches will take 17 forwards and 14 backs, and some will even take 18 forwards.
Taking two halfbacks and two hookers - as the Wallabies did in 2015 - gives more flexibility to take extra players elsewhere but it is also a gamble, given a match-eve injury can leave you with only one specialist.
Makeshift back-up options are required. Matt Giteau was the third nine in 2015, and Scott Sio was trained up as an emergency hooker.
Cheika also explained the thinking behind the Wallabies heading to a remote training camp on Noumea next week.
There were discussions about returning to the USA, as the Wallabies did before the 2015 World Cup, but a game against the Eagles was unable to be negotiated.
The Wallabies will return to Sydney ahead of the Samoa Test on September 11 at Bankwest Stadium.
"The idea is to be a bit more remote,” Cheika said.
"Just us, focusing on what we need to do, training hard, recovering well, no distractions. And concentrating on the seven or eight weeks ahead of us after that.
"That builds the bonds even tighter, when you work hard together and can help you do things that maybe you didn’t think were possible before, or other people didn’t think were possible. Put yourself in that mindset.”