The Wallabies’ 2019 World Cup campaign is over, and with it are the international careers of David Pocock, Will Genia and Sekope Kepu.
Samu Kerevi, Christian Lealiifano, and Bernard Foley are headed to Japan, Rory Arnold to link up with his brother at Toulouse, and Adam Coleman headlines a number of Australian departures to London Irish. Tolu Latu, after finding excellent form in Japan, is expected to complete a move to Stade Francais.
Add to that post-tournament player exodus a change of coach following Michael Cheika’s resignation, and it’s clear that the Wallabies will field a different-looking side in 2020.
Here’s a look at who could line up in an Australian XV next year – as well as who might be in each position by the time the next World Cup rolls around.
After a couple of stellar seasons with the Brumbies, Banks was the player most unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad. He wasn’t half-missed in Japan, either.
A good all-round fullback with a running game which has drawn comparisons to Chris Latham, the prospect of Banks establishing himself as the Wallabies’ fullback for the foreseeable future is an enticing one. He’s only played six Tests to date – and just two were in the run-on XV – and at 25 his best years are still ahead of him.
With Kurtley Beale looking less and less suited to Test rugby, Dane Haylett-Petty looms as Banks’ main contender for the 15 jersey, although at 31, the Rebels captain has less improvement in him than his Brumbies counterpart.
And in 2023… Banks is young enough that he should be the custodian in France, but the obvious alternative to him is another Queensland product, Isaac Lucas. The Reds youngster could just as easily pop up in another position, though, or he could push Banks out to the wing.
Marika Koroibete’s development from league convert uneasy in the 15-man code to the Wallabies’ best performer at the World Cup, all in the space of two years, has been wonderful to watch. Pencil him in as one of the first names on the team-sheet in 2020.
Who partners him, though, is a different matter. Reece Hodge wore 14 when available in Japan but lacks the pace to be a top-tier winger at Test level. The same goes for Haylett-Petty.
Jack Maddocks has experienced Test rugby, and, much like his Rebels side, had a strong start to 2019 before dropping off as the Super Rugby season continued. He’s quick, a good finisher, has a diverse enough skillset, and at 22 is only going to improve.
That’s enough to opt for an all-Melbourne wing pairing, although having Haylett-Petty at the back and shifting Banks to the wing is another attractive option.
And in 2023… Maddocks will certainly be in the frame for a World Cup jersey next time around, as long as he stays in the 15-man game beyond his current deal – having put pen to paper on a two-year extension in 2018, he’s off-contract at the end of next year. Koroibete is locked away for one more year than his Rebels teammate and will be 31 by the next World Cup. It’s entirely conceivable that one or both could line up in France.
If we’re looking at younger prospects, Byron Ralston has been impressive in the NRC for the Western Force this year, while fellow Junior Wallaby Mark Nawaqanitawase, who has an impressive 190-centimetre frame on his side, has caught the eye of new NSW coach Rob Penney and earnt himself a three-year deal at the Waratahs.
Credit where it’s due: there were weaknesses in the side Michael Cheika and the selectors picked to face England. Jordan Petaia was not one of them – the gamble to put him at outside centre proved to be anything but.
Petaia has shown in his three Tests so far that he belongs at this level, and the thought of how much he can still improve, at just 19 years old, is a reason for optimism among Australian rugby fans.
There will no doubt be an argument to play Petaia on the wing in order to get Tevita Kuridrani in the side, but the Reds youngster prefers to play with the 13 on his back, and so that’s where he should be picked.
And in 2023… Assuming he’s fit and inks a contract extension to keep him in rugby beyond 2022, Petaia will be there in France.
Having been one of the easiest positions to fill this year thanks to Samu Kerevi, inside centre is now wide open. James O’Connor has all the tools to play the position – speed, strength and playmaking skillset – and didn’t do a lot wrong before being demoted to the bench for the quarter-final loss.
Reece Hodge is another who could quite conceivably take the no.12 jersey, with his best position still yet to be settled. While he became one of Cheika’s first-choice wingers this year, his kicking game is wasted out wide, and he has the passing and defensive skills to play in the centres.
O’Connor probably gets first shot at the position, but this one’s right up in the air.
And in 2023… Having signed a three-year deal with Suntory Goliath, Kerevi may well be eyeing off a return to Australian rugby in time for the next World Cup. There’d be questions over whether he’ll improve, plateau or go downhill during his time in Japan, but at 30 he’ll still be in his prime – albeit at the end of it – for a second tilt at the tournament.
No position is of more concern for the Wallabies right now than flyhalf. Lealiifano won’t play for the Wallabies again, and while Foley remains eligible for selection under the Giteau Law, it’s hard to justify picking him in another Test.
That, combined with an utter lack of readymade alternatives, leaves Matt To’omua as the most likely man to steer the team around the park next year. He had the best World Cup of the three flyhalves taken to Japan, but often only as a second-half replacement. We’ll know a lot more about his quality as a starter this time next year.
And in 2023… After an impressive schoolboys tour of Europe, Reesjan Pasitoa inked a Brumbies contract aged just 17, still with a year of high school to complete. With his studies wrapped up, he’ll join the ACT side next season, and might just start making a Petaia-like emergence.
Will Harrison is another who’ll be in contention for the Wallabies no.10 in 2023, and probably far sooner. He was instrumental for the Junior Wallabies during their charge to the Under-20 World Championship final earlier this year – although missed the side’s semi-final – and will get a good taste of Super Rugby in 2020 having signed with the Waratahs.
An easy choice here. White should have started against England, and his crisp delivery from the ruck, as well as good kicking and running games, will be an important part of the Wallabies’ attack for the foreseeable future.
Joe Powell is the most likely reserve right now, but Jake Gordon should also come into reckoning. Touted as a future Wallaby for some time before making his Test debut against Italy last year, he’ll benefit from getting more minutes at the Waratahs this year now Nick Phipps has left the club.
And in 2023… Tate McDermott was a bright spot in another finals-less Super Rugby season for the Reds. He’s too raw right now, but if exposed to Test rugby gradually over the next four years, he’ll be in a good spot to play a role in France, whether starting or backing White up from the bench.
It was an impressive debut season of international rugby for Isi Naisarani, who provided powerful ball-running and an extra lineout option to the Wallabies – both welcome additions to the side. Assuming he keeps up his strong Super Rugby form of seasons past, there’s no reason why he won’t be lining up in the Test area once again next year.
Pete Samu should be given more of a chance by the next coach, too, after his performances in the dominant Brumbies pack weren’t rewarded by the Test selectors this year – although a late-season hamstring injury didn’t help his chances.
And in 2023… There’s some impressive young talent coming through at the back of the scrum. Waratahs squad member Will Harris does as good an impression of a human fridge as you’ll see from a 19-year-old, and with better skills than you’d expect from someone his size.
Then there’s Queenslander Harry Wilson. With Harris at no.8, Wilson played a key role for the Junior Wallabies at blindside flanker at this year’s Under-20 World Championship, then went onto win the Queensland Premier Rugby player of the year (despite only playing seven games) and the NRC rising star award.
For all the criticism he attracts, Michael Hooper remains one of the Wallabies’ most reliable performers, and is one of the few proven, world-class players left in the side for 2020.
There’s not much discussion to be had here – Hooper will be at no.7 in 2020, with his first appearance of the year set to be his 100th Test cap in quick time.
And in 2023… Hooper is locked in until the end of the next World Cup courtesy of that much-discussed five-year contract he signed in 2018, but Fraser McReight will be gunning for his no.7 jersey by then. The 20-year-old made his Super Rugby debut and captained the Junior Wallabies to the final of the Under-20 World Championship earlier this year, before impressing as Brisbane City’s skipper in the NRC. He’s going to be a star.
Sean McMahon may also return to Australian rugby in time for a tilt at the 2023 World Cup.
Prior to a 2017 match against the Barbarians, Jack Dempsey had shown more than enough to suggest he would be the perfect third cog in a back row containing Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Unfortunately for both him and the Wallabies, he was forced from the field midway through the match when he tore his hamstring off the bone.
That injury stalled Dempsey’s career, but he was in good form in his two World Cup appearances, his footwork into contact particularly impressive – although the pair of outings did come against the weakest pool opponents.
An injury-free Super Rugby season will have him in prime position to take the no.6 jersey.
And in 2023… Currently 25, Dempsey will be eyeing off a second World Cup in four years’ time – although Rob Valetini should have emerged as a genuine contender for the no.6 jersey by then. Four years Dempsey’s junior, he was solid for the Brumbies during their run to the Super Rugby semi-finals and unlucky to miss out on World Cup selection.
Australia’s second-row stocks are taking a considerable hit thanks to the departures of Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman to Europe. Arnold is a particularly painful loss, having developed into one of the top locks in the world this year.
Izack Rodda is a sure-fire starter next year. The 23-year-old had a good World Cup and inked an extension which will keep him in Australian rugby until the next tournament.
Who partners him is far less clear-cut. Rob Simmons signed on for an extra two years, and his experience will be valuable given the overseas exodus. At 30 years old, there won’t be much improvement left in the veteran, and so he looms more as a valuable squad member than crucial first-team player.
On the back of a strong 2019 Super Rugby season, Matt Phillip might be in line for a step up to Wallabies regular. Re-signing the lock was a priority for Dave Wessels and the Rebels earlier this year, and another good year for the Melbourne franchise will have him right in the frame to add to his three Test caps in 2020.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is another option. Played predominantly at blindside flanker under Cheika, he’s looked a more natural lock than breakaway and a change of coach could well see him shift from the back to second row. Same goes for – and whisper this name lest it create a chorus of outrage on Twitter – Ned Hanigan.
There’s depth in the position, just not of the same quality as earlier this year.
And in 2023… Both Rodda and Phillip are in the right age bracket to still be starting at the next World Cup. French media reported Arnold’s deal with Toulouse as a three-year one, which would mean he’d be in contention to make a return for the 2023 tournament, while Rugby AU would no doubt also like to have his twin brother Richie and big Saracens second-rower Will Skelton back in Australia by then.
On the younger side of things, Junior Wallaby Nick Frost has been signed by the Brumbies and will likely enjoy a considerable amount of gametime with Arnold and Sam Carter both leaving the club. He spent the last two years with the Crusaders’ development program, and his return to Australia is a welcome bit of news for the Wallabies.
The 20-year-old certainly has the athleticism to become a world-class lock – just have a look at his schoolboys highlights clip:
The front row is one area of strength for the Wallabies which isn’t being compromised by overseas departures. Starting props Scott Sio and Allan Alaalatoa are both locked away for the next few seasons, Sio inking a three-year deal earlier this year and Alaalatoa joining Michael Hooper in signing a five-year extension in 2018.
The back-ups are solid too. While Sekope Kepu has retired from international rugby, James Slipper and Taniela Tupou will both be in Australia and available for selection next year.
And in 2023… Based on their contracts and age, Alaalatoa and Tupou loom as the key props at the next World Cup, although having them start together would require one to switch to the other side of the scrum. Both are contracted until 2023, and both will still be under 30 by the time that tournament starts. Rugby AU will be hoping Tupou, in particular, is a star by then, with his deal reportedly scaling up to $1 million per season by the final year.
Sio should still be in contention for what would be his third World Cup, and there’s also some positive noise about loosehead Angus Bell, who had an impressive Under-20 World Championship.
Tolu Latu was one of the Wallabies’ better performers in Japan, but it was a little surprising how little time Folau Fainga’a spent on the field for the side this year in light of his stellar season with the Brumbies. With Latu reportedly set to join Stade Francais, Fainga’a should be given a proper crack at making the no.2 jersey his own next year.
Jordan Uelese is the main alternative to Fainga’a. Having come back from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s home series against Ireland, the Rebels youngster was solid off the bench in Japan. At their ages (Fainga’a is 24, Uelese 22), they’re a promising hooking rotation.
And in 2023… Much more of the same – the aforementioned duo should still be the frontrunners for Wallabies selection. Lachlan Lonergan played a key role for the Junior Wallabies this year and will hopefully emerge as another option at hooker. Now part of the Brumbies senior squad, he’ll have the opportunity to learn from Fainga’a, although eventually may need to move to another state to get more Super Rugby minutes.
Whoever ends up taking over from Cheika, they’re going to have the cattle to perform well relatively quickly. Yes, there are serious areas of concern: flyhalf options are lacking, the second-row stocks have taken a massive hit, and the selection merry-go-round has left everyone unwise as to what the side’s best backline is.
There’s also a group of players whose performances at Super Rugby level suggests they can adapt quite nicely indeed to Test rugby if given a proper chance. It’s worth keeping in mind, too, that a significant portion of the recent World Cup squad is going to remain with the Wallabies next year, and it was tactical naivete and rigidity, not a lack of player talent, that led to the quarter-final exit.
Then there are the junior playing stocks. Some of the players who appeared in the Under-20 World Championship final have begun to prove themselves in the NRC and will emerge as Super Rugby regulars in the coming seasons.
It’s important for their development that they’re not rushed into the Test set-up too early – or talked about as the saviours of Australian rugby – but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or two of them come into the selection frame on the back of a breakout season. Let’s just not expect too much from them too soon.
So, with all the usual caveats that come with trying to predict something so far away, here’s what a Wallabies match-day 23 might look like next year, and a far more speculative guess at who will line up in 2023.
|Scott Sio||1.||Scott Sio|
|Folau Fainga’a||2.||Jordan Uelese|
|Allan Alaalatoa||3.||Taniela Tupou|
|Izack Rodda||4.||Izack Rodda|
|Matt Phillip||5.||Rory Arnold|
|Jack Dempsey||6.||Jack Dempsey|
|Michael Hooper||7.||Michael Hooper|
|Isi Naisarani||8.||Harry Wilson|
|Nic White||9.||Nic White|
|Matt To’omua||10.||Will Harrison|
|Marika Koroibete||11.||Tom Banks|
|James O’Connor||12.||Samu Kerevi|
|Jordan Petaia||13.||Jordan Petaia|
|Jack Maddocks||14.||Jack Maddocks|
|Tom Banks||15.||Isaac Lucas|
|Jordan Uelese||16.||Folau Fainga’a|
|James Slipper||17.||Angus Bell|
|Taniela Tupou||18.||Allan Alaalatoa|
|Rob Simmons||19.||Will Skelton|
|Lukhan Salakaia-Loto||20.||Will Harris|
|Pete Samu||21.||Fraser McReight|
|Joe Powell||22.||Tate McDermott|
|Reece Hodge||23.||Reece Hodge|
A quick note of thanks to Brett McKay who, as someone who’s watched a hell of a lot more NRC than me, was able to answer plenty of questions for this article about some of the younger players listed as 2023 prospects.