First Test of the season barely a fortnight away? You know what that means: it’s time to play selector.
The Wallabies head over to New Zealand this very day ahead of Bledisloe 1. Captaincy aside, Dave Rennie will use a considerably different team to the 23 named by Michael Cheika in Australia’s last Test, the World Cup quarter-final defeat to England more than 11 months ago.
With the precise make-up of that matchday squad still up in the air, here’s a crack at picking a side from the 44-man Wallabies squad to take on the All Blacks in Wellington on October 11.
The front row is a strange collection of positions where the depth ranges from not too bad, to thin, to impressive. The first applies to loosehead prop, where Scott Sio and James Slipper remain the top two no.1s in Australia. Hooking stocks are shaky right now, but at tighthead Rennie is faced with the opposite problem of having two top-tier operators vying for the same position.
Sio didn’t have his best year in Super Rugby but was still a solid contributor for the Brumbies. Given Dan McKellar successfully employed the tactic of starting him and then bringing on Slipper to close out games, it makes sense for Rennie to do the same, although I’d have liked to see fellow loosehead Cameron Orr in the squad after a strong season with the Rebels.
Hooker is straightforward. Brandon Paenga-Amosa was good at scrum time, but Folau Fainga’a has been the best Australian no.2 for two years now and deserves a decent run starting for the Wallabies. He also doesn’t provide the same lineout headaches of his Reds counterpart.
The Wallabies have two excellent tightheads they’d love to fit in the same jersey – an entirely impossible task given Taniela Tupou can barely fit into a triple-XL on his own. He was one of the outstanding players of Super Rugby AU, but Allan Alaalatoa wasn’t far behind.
Tupou is the more dominant scrummager, Alaalatoa excels in the maul and has a slightly better work-rate (although the Tongan Thor is gaining on him in that area), and both are capable of playing the full 80 minutes, as they showed on Saturday.
It’s a 50-50 proposition which I’ll nudge 51-49 in the Brumby’s favour, purely because playing an established combination of provincial teammates together could prove beneficial with such a short and unusual lead-up to the opening Test. Pencil Tupou in for a good 30-40 minutes off the bench though.
1. Scott Sio, 2. Folau Fainga’a, 3. Allan Alaalatoa
Bledisloes 1 and 2 fall outside World Rugby’s international window, so the two overseas-based players who will be added to Rennie’s squad – one of whom will surely be Rory Arnold – won’t be available until the Rugby Championship.
With five locks to choose from, there are two ways we can take the second-row selection. Both involve picking Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who has been excellent since making the shift into the tight five for the Reds this year.
One option is to partner him Rob Simmons, the other with Matt Philip. Both operate the lineout well, allowing Salakaia-Loto to play the enforcer role he’s suited to. With Simmons’ career winding down and Philip’s just starting, the Rebel offers more upside, as well as a bit more power in the contact zone.
4. Matt Philip, 5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
Loose forwards stocks are Australia’s greatest area of strength right now. There’s competition for each position in the back row, a good blend of experience and exciting youth, and further depth outside the 44-man squad.
In retaining Michael Hooper, Dave Rennie confirmed the obvious: the Waratah remains the best openside flanker in Australia, and the first name picked in the XV. For all the promise Fraser McReight shows, he’s still in his infancy as a professional rugby player, while Hooper has been world-class for more than half a decade. Lock him in for his 100th Test cap in a couple of weeks.
Another automatic selection should be Pete Samu. He’s been one of the Brumbies’ best since jumping across the Tasman, excellent in defence and attack, and possesses the best footwork with ball in hand of all the Wallabies’ loosies.
The question is what number to throw on his back: six or eight. Playing him at blindside would allow for a power-packed back row with Reds youngster Harry Wilson at the back of the scrum (or you could have Samu at eight and Wilson at six, where he played well for the Junior Wallabies last year). Wilson has a burgeoning power running game, but his form did start to drop off towards the end of the Super Rugby season.
Instead, his Reds captain, Liam Wright, gets the nod at six leaving Samu at number eight. Given Wright was listed solely as an openside flanker in the last PONI list before the Wallabies squad was named, it would be something of a surprise to see Rennie pick him there, however the Reds played their best footy this season with their skipper at no.6.
While Wright doesn’t have Wilson’s strength in contact, but he provides a better lineout option, has already established himself as an admirable leader at just 22, and completes a back-row trio full of capable pilferers.
6. Liam Wright, 7. Michael Hooper (captain), 8. Pete Samu
Halfback is an area in which the Wallabies have experienced little turbulence for the entire professional era, with George Gregan then Will Genia dominating the no.9 jersey.
Tate McDermott may well be the man who makes the position his own in seasons to come, but with his passing not quite there yet, Nic White ought to be given first crack this year.
The 30-year-old didn’t do his selection case any favours coming off the bench in the Super Rugby AU final, but was assured in his other appearances in the competition. He’s a crisp passer, good organiser on both sides of the ball, and possesses a strong kicking game from nine.
He also has a happy habit of standing up against the All Blacks, having been one of the main catalysts for the 47-26 thumping in Perth last year.
9. Nic White
We’ll group flyhalf in with the centres given the injuries (one in particular) in the squad have a flow-on effect from 10 to 13.
Let’s start with the optimal scenario where everyone is fit and healthy.
Noah Lolesio is awfully tempting to pick at flyhalf after his man-of-the-match performance in the final on Saturday. However, impressive as the 20-year-old is, there are concerns about whether he’s ready yet to jump into Test rugby against the All Blacks, particularly in defence.
There are no such qualms about Matt To’omua, whose physicality with and without the ball is outstanding. He’s also proven himself a strong playmaker even though he was playing behind a maddeningly inconsistent Melbourne forward pack this season, and was the pick of the Wallabies flyhalves at the World Cup last year.
James O’Connor was an easy choice no.10 for our Super Rugby AU team of the season, but I maintain he’s still better suited to playing one step further from the ruck at inside centre, where he can take on the line more often. At any rate, having To’omua and O’Connor gives the Wallabies a dual playmaker pairing at flyhalf and inside centre, a set-up which has traditionally served the side well.
The one particular injury mentioned earlier belongs to the oft-hobbled Jordan Petaia. Petaia is the best of the cohort of young Wallabies and, more to the point, the obvious option to start at outside centre with no Tevita Kuridrani in the squad. If he’s fit, there’s no one better to take the no.13 jersey.
10. Matt To’omua, 12. James O’Connor, 13. Jordan Petaia
Rennie on Wednesday seemed confident he’ll have a full squad to pick from for Bledisloe 1, so that combination isn’t as far-fetched as it seemed earlier in the week. However, if there are any concerns about Petaia’s health, however minor, he shouldn’t play. While he’s been fortunate in that his major injuries so far haven’t been recurring ones, he’s still a 20-year-old who’s spent more of his career in the casualty ward than on the pitch.
If he’s ruled out, depth at outside centre becomes an issue. Kuridrani isn’t in the squad, and Len Ikitau isn’t halfway experienced enough to start against New Zealand.
Hunter Paisami is a damaging ball-runner and hard hitter, but isn’t the finished product in defence. It’d be a terribly tough ask to hand him a debut in such an important position, starting against the All Blacks. I’m similarly unconvinced about Reece Hodge’s defensive readiness at 13 after another season spent moving between the Melbourne midfield and back three.
It’s not ideal, but a better alternative to Paisami or Hodge would be pushing O’Connor up one more jersey into the 13. He played the role well last year, including in the Bledisloe 1 win, and would give the side playmaking threats right across midfield.
In such a scenario, To’omua can shift across to inside centre – not his preferred position, but still where he’s played most of his Test rugby – allowing for Lolesio to take the reins at flyhalf. With two accomplished playmakers outside him, it’d give the youngster ample support on debut, although he could expect the All Blacks to run plenty of traffic his way.
10. Noah Lolesio, 12. Matt To’omua, 13. James O’Connor
Rennie has an unusual situation where the three best wingers in Super Rugby AU – Filipo Daugunu, Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete – all play on the left. James Ramm is the sole out-and-out wide man who plays on the other side of the field and, promising though his season was, isn’t yet at the level of the other trio.
As the incumbent and reigning John Eales Medallist, Koroibete is an easy pick at no.11. His improvement from unsteady league convert to player of the year has been a rare highlight for the Wallabies over the past three years, and he was among the Rebels’ best players once again this season.
In the race to partner him, Wright had a fabulous start to the season before tailing away slightly, while Daugunu was consistently outstanding for the Reds… until the final, when he knocked-on two easy kicks and gave away a pair of penalties, the second of which earnt him a yellow card.
One bad performance doesn’t erase all the excellent ones beforehand – let’s not forget he was best aground in the qualifying final – but the nature of those errors in the pressure environment of a decider suggests Daugunu isn’t quite ready for a starting gig against the All Blacks, who are so ruthless in punishing any kind of mistake.
So instead Wright is my pick, who could easily claim he deserves a starting jersey regardless of Daugunu’s nightmare on Saturday given his own strong season. A former five-eighth in the NRL, he also offers a better kicking option than his Queensland counterpart, an important consideration given it’s a weakness of Koroibete’s.
Rounding out the XV at fullback is Tom Banks, a straightforward choice. If Dane Haylett-Petty was coming off an uninterrupted season and was fully fit, he’d be a strong alternative, but unfortunately the Melbourne skipper is neither of those right now.
Jock Campbell isn’t in the squad, Jack Maddocks has a tendency to drift in and out of games, and Banks finished the Brumbies’ campaign strongly after missing Round 1 of Super Rugby AU through injury.
11. Marika Koroibete, 14. Tom Wright, 15. Tom Banks
Back-up hooker rests on Jordan Uelese’s AC joint. If he is fully fit, he should get the nod after a strong season with the Rebels both at lineout time and around the ground.
If he hasn’t quite recovered, Brandon Paenga-Amosa is the obvious alternative. His throwing clearly needs more work – although it had improved in the Reds’ run of four straight wins – but he provides a bigger threat in the scrum than Uelese.
Speaking of scrum time, in James Slipper and Taniela Tupou, Rennie has a pair of props capable of dominating when the front rows pack down. While not quite Springbok ‘bomb squad’ material, bringing them off the bench with half an hour or more left would give the Wallabies a good lift in the second half.
16. Jordan Uelese/Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 17. James Slipper, 18. Taniela Tupou
The remaining bench forwards are trickier to pick, much of which comes down to the lack of options at lock. Rob Simmons remains better suited to a starting role, although he did show a bit more grunt in tight this year than what we’ve come to expect, and Waratahs teammate Ned Hannigan doesn’t quite have the size to play second row in Test rugby.
That leaves promising Melbourne Rebel Trevor Hosea, who was impressive in his first year of Super Rugby. Given New Zealand are also thin at lock, it makes sense to throw him a first Test cap in Wellington rather than against the behemoths the Springboks can trot out off the bench – assuming Jacques Nienaber has a full-strength squad at his disposal.
Backup loose forward comes down to a choice of whether you want to power or pilfer your way to victory. The man for the latter option is naturally Fraser McReight, who made quite the impact whether starting or coming off the bench for the Reds.
However, with Michael Hooper an 80-minute player and the other two starting back-rowers capable of shifting to seven should an injury require it, it’s hard to justify picking another openside in the reserves.
Handing Harry Wilson a debut makes for a better-balanced side with his ability to play blindside flanker or number eight. The thought of him tearing in at full-tilt for a 15- or 20-minute stint has plenty of appeal, too.
19. Trevor Hosea, 20. Harry Wilson
Backup scrumhalf? Easy. Tate McDermott was the pick of the Australian halfbacks this season – it was no coincidence the Reds’ resurgence started when he was brought back into their starting line-up. His excellent running game makes him the perfect man to come off the bench in the closing stages.
Reece Hodge, too, is an obvious selection due to his ability to cover fullback, wing, both centre positions and, at a stretch, flyhalf. He could be handy to have on the field for any late long-range shots at goal.
If Petaia is fit to start, Noah Lolesio should be the other reserve back. He brings with him a bit of versatility, able to play at flyhalf and inside centre, and would challenge the line late with his nimble footwork.
If not, there’s no standout candidate for the remaining spot. Will Harrison could be one – although I’m not sure he’s physically ready to face the All Blacks – as could any of Jack Maddocks, Dane Haylett-Petty, Irae Simone and Hunter Paisami.
I’ll go for Filipo Daugunu though. Yes, he had a shocker last weekend, but he was the Super Rugby AU leader for tries scored, carries, metres made and defenders beaten, and was second in the comp behind Tom Wright for linebreaks. His on-ball ability and defence could prove valuable late on, too.
21. Tate McDermott, 22. Reece Hodge, 23. Noah Lolesio/Filipo Daugunu
Put that all together and you have a Wallabies line-up which looks something like this:
1. Scott Sio
2. Folau Fainga’a
3. Allan Alaalatoa
4. Matt Philip
5. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
6. Liam Wright
7. Michael Hooper (c)
8. Pete Samu
9. Nic White
10. Matt To’omua
11. Marika Koroibete
12. James O’Connor
13. Jordan Petaia
14. Tom Wright
15. Tom Banks
16. Jordan Uelese
17. James Slipper
18. Taniela Tupou
19. Trevor Hosea
20. Harry Wilson
21. Tate McDermott
22. Noah Lolesio
23. Reece Hodge
No doubt there’ll be plenty of other proposed teams out there, so have a crack at picking your own in the form below and we’ll publish the most popular line-up next week.