Wallabies World Cup squad announcement: The burning questions

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

Thirty-one players sounds like a lot, right? Two teams and a spare. That’s heaps.

If only. As any World Cup coach will tell you, 31 is actually a disturbingly low number when it comes to picking a squad to take world rugby’s four-yearly Royal Rumble.

Indeed, when broken down into component parts of positional brackets and re-assembled into a squad that can not only survive seven games inside seven weeks, but thrive - 31 is a number that brings on migraines.

Tomorrow Michael Cheika, with the input of his selection panel colleagues Scott Johnson and Mick O’Connor, will reveal a list of the 31 Wallabies going to contest the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It is a squad that has been four years in the making and some will have been on the whole journey. Some will have been on a tiny fraction.

Some will have been to one or more World Cups before. Others will be attending their first.

Some players will squeak in the last seats on the plane. Others will be devastated to be ranked between 32nd and 40th in the pecking order.

There will debate. Oh, there will be debate.

So what can we expect from the Wallabies’ World Cup announcement, what are key questions and how would have the selectors arrived at their final list of 31?

THE THREE HALFBACK/HOOKER DILEMMA?

The first decision a World Cup coach will make about a squad is whether they take three players in the specialist positions: hooker and halfback.

Taking three in the specialist positions gives you security in the event of emergency but it means you may end up wasting a spot on a guy who could play next-to-no minutes if there is plain sailing.

And given the demands of seven games in seven weeks, every extra fresh body – particularly in the tight-five - counts in a squad of 31.

It’s a tricky call. 

Almost every other position can be covered in an emergency, but the special skills required by a hooker and a halfback - namely lineout throwing, hooking and passing - make them extremely difficult to replace.

Two are needed in every match day 23  so World Cup coaches are instinctively reticent to only take two, in case a late injury occurs.

World Cup rules stipulate that players can only be replaced in the 31-man squad for "medical or compassionate reasons” and that replacement is permanent. Crucially, after World Rugby sign off on the paperwork, the replacement also can’t play for 48 hours.

So if a squad only has two halfbacks or hookers, and one rolls an ankle at the captain’s run, they could be stuffed.

A makeshift option has to be hastily added to the bench.

In 2015, the Wallabies rolled the dice and took only two halfbacks and two hookers. Matt Giteau, who’d played halfback for the Brumbies, was the no.9 cover and Scott Sio was the man trained up to cover hooker. Neither was required.

What will Cheika do in 2019? 

In 2015, his two hookers Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau were experienced campaigners and were reliable enough to get through 80 minutes in the event of emergency.

In 2019, the hookers in the squad have been Tolu Latu, Folau Faingaa, Jordan Uelese and Polota-Nau, and only the last man has genuine experience.

The first two have been the mainstays this year, but TPN has been a trusted stalwart throughout the last four years, even while overseas.

Uelese hasn’t had much time to prove himself after coming off a long-term injury and getting concussed in his only Test minutes against South Africa.

Halfback? The fact there is no obvious Giteau-style back-up around would give hope to Joe Powell, who would be the third choice behind Nic White and Will Genia. Nick Phipps and Jake Gordon’s hopes appear to over.

WILLY CALL UP SKELTON?

Don’t hold your breath for Will Skelton to be playing at the World Cup, despite Michael Cheika dangling some pretty juicy bait this week.

It looks a longer shot than Stephen Larkham's drop-goal in the 1999 semi-final.

Cheika all-but let Skelton know he’d be prepared to parachute him into the World Cup squad, despite not having played or trained a minute for Australia this year. He definitely likes him and the context is that these discussions have been going on for months.

But Skelton had still not committed on Sunday and hence Cheika’s public name drop. Speculation has it that Skelton wanted to play two more years at Saracens and commit to returning mid-2021, instead of next year as required by the Giteau Laws. Rugby Australia woudn’t budge.

Cheika said on Tuesday he’d still not heard from Skelton.

WILL DAVID POCOCK BE RIGHT TO GO?

Recent World Cup announcements have had their fair share of shocks and stunners.

In 2011, the big news was James Horwill emerging first out of the door of the Qantas plane as captain, after replacing Rocky Elsom in a shock 11th-hour call by Robbie Deans.

In 2015, Nic White was considered the hard-done-by kid after being in good form that winter.

The same size shock - and then some - would be attached to Pocock not named on Friday morning if it happened.


Pocock hasn’t played for almost seven months, after injuring his calf. It was something of a mystery injury. When Pocock pushed to get back for the Brumbies, he’d re-injure it.

A slowed-down, cautious rehab process has been followed for the last few months and Pocock has been training full-time with the team for several weeks. If Pocock’s social media accounts are anything to go by, he now looks ready to go. And compete in the Olympic triple-jump.

The key thing is that Michael Cheika has indicated Pocock will make his return his return against Samoa on September 7 and all fingers and toes will be crossed he gets through it happily.

So will Pocock be picked for the World Cup? Likely. 

Will Pocock play at the World Cup? Time will tell.

WHO IS OFF THE RADAR ENTIRELY?

For several Wallabies on the far edges of the squad, the writing about their World Cup chances has been on the wall for a while now.

Though they were all regulars last year, guys like Jack Maddocks, Nick Phipps, Jake Gordon, Ned Hanigan and Pete Samu have fallen out of the reckoning in recent months, and are 1000-1 to get a shock call-up.

There are individual reasons behind all of them but the same basic premise: others have taken the spot.

For Phipps and Gordon, it was Nic White’s return and Joe Powell’s excellent Brumbies form.

For Hanigan and Samu, the inclusion of Isi Naisarani and the return of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has added to back row depth. 

And for Maddocks, the scintillating form of Tom Banks and the return of Adam Ashley-Cooper was enough to push him down a few places.

WILL THERE BE A SHOCK BOLTER?

In 2015, Sean McMahon was given the last seat on the plane after forcing Cheika’s hand at training.

Such was his intensity, players were forced to lift themselves to the young pup’s level just to save face. 

McMahon was taken to give that drive at training at the World Cup but he ended up starting at no.7 when Michael Hooper was suspended, and he thumped blokes there, too.

So will there be a bolter in the 2019 squad?

It’s hard to see someone emerging from way outside the box but several leading commentators have called for teenager Jordan Petaia to be taken to Japan, despite being uncapped and not having played for most of the year with a foot injury.

Liam Wright is another potential bolter who has come from the clouds in recent weeks, but as a no.7, his call-up would be tied to Pocock developments, you’d imagine.

And given he only signed up with Aussie rugby five weeks ago, James O’Connor should really be considered a bolter. But his impact has been such - particulalry in Perth - that most people pencilled him a few weeks back, which is remarkable when you think about it.

OTHER KEY QUESTIONS

How will Michael Cheika balance his playmakers, and is Bernard Foley in trouble of missing out given Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua have played the last two Tests in the no.10 shirt?

Will prop Tom Robertson, who has been injured throughout the Rugby Championship, be taken as a sixth prop?

Can Scott Sio still throw lineouts?

Can Adam Ashley-Cooper equal George Gregan and make a fourth World Cup?

Has anyone seen James Horwill lurking about?

All will be found out on Friday morning at 9am, when the Wallabies 31-man squad is announced. Watch the live stream on RUGBY.com.au.