Dave Rennie is a man who knows what he wants.
In the current catch-cry of Australian fans, #InRennieWeTrust and his selections throughout his 20-Test tenure to date have dealt with players who are emerging, experienced and many that thought they’d played their last game in gold or simply never would.
Across these matches over 2020 and 2021, 78 players have either been officially called into squads or named in the squads of players of national interest.
Of those 78 players, 55 have been afforded at least some time in the Test match arena (including 50 in 2021), whether it be for every game they’re available or for a matter of minutes to cover injuries.
It’d be very easy to focus on the players that have been capped as Wallabies under Dave Rennie.
But instead, I’d like to look at the 23 players who have not been game time (yet?) and see which of these, among other potential bolters, could yet make their way into a match-day 23.
The front row
Starting up front provides an interesting juxtaposition of two vastly different areas.
The props, on both the loosehead and tighthead side, have a very clear hierarchy, demonstrated by the inclusion of James Slipper, Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou and Allan Alaalatoa in nearly every opportunity available.
Scott Sio and Tom Robertson have been used a bit, and are experienced too, but who are the next cabs off the rank?
Pone Fa’amausili has been called into every squad possible, but the form of the incumbents as well as untimely injuries has meant his debut is still to come.
On the tighthead side, the only other local player I’d like to see would be a return to the Test arena for Harry Johnson-Holmes, who earned a solitary cap off the bench against South Africa in 2019.
Both men will only be turning 25 in 2022, so there is plenty of time to develop these sizeable lads.
It should be noted that Jermaine Ainsley made the squad last year, and while he already boasts three Test caps from his time under Michael Cheika, his departure to the Highlanders leaves him more unlikely for recall in the future.
On the loosehead side, the 200-plus combined Test caps for Slipper, Bell, Sio and Robertson is more than enough to feel like we’re in safe hands.
However Cameron Orr got a sniff earlier in the year around the squads and he’s someone who is only an uninterrupted season away from showing us he can mix it with the best.
A full season starting at one for the Reds wouldn’t hurt the chances of Dane Zander or Feao Fotuaika either.
Between the gentle giants is Australia’s largest problem position at the moment.
I mean that as no disrespect to the players that have plied their trade either, simply for the fact that 2021 has seen seven different hookers receive game time and no one in the 28 (starting and bench) opportunities this year amassed double-digit features.
Adding to the list of players who took the field, Rennie has also called on the services of David Porecki, Alex Mafi and Tom Horton at varying stages.
If it weren’t for injuries to the two former, we would’ve seen at least an eighth hooker this year.
With three Wallabies hookers at the Brumbies in 2022 and none at the Waratahs or Reds, it is an interesting situation that we should now be talking about centralisation.
However it seems that each side will continue with what they’ve got as we continue the search for our best rake in 2022.
No one outside of this list should really be putting their hand up between now and the 2023 Rugby World Cup, a nice line in the sand to gear toward for the argument of this article.
But a recall for 12-Test James Hanson wouldn’t be out of the question if his experience shone at the Melbourne Rebels next season.
The engine room this year actually seems quite well-run, which is all the more impressive given it included the debut of Darcy Swain and the return from two different French teams for Matt Philip and Izack Rodda.
When you throw in Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and the possible return of Rory Arnold and/or Will Skelton depending on how future selections are decided, locks seem to be in good hands.
Over the last two seasons, the young Nick Frost and Trevor Hosea have been called into squads, as have the experienced Cadeyrn Neville and Sitaleki Timani.
With the current stocks, the latter are probably unlikely to feature under Rennie given fears of longevity.
However good seasons from Frost and Hosea could definitely force Rennie’s hand and indeed make overseas locks surplus to requirements.
Of the overlooked locks, Ryan Smith has really impressed since over-taking Angus Blyth in the Reds’ pecking order, but arguably the biggest snub of 2021 was Fergus Lee-Warner.
He toils religiously and is involved in everything, but perhaps his propensity to be seen as more of a blindside flanker has restricted opportunities here. In any case, I’m keen to see his development.
The back row
The loose forwards of Australian rugby have chopped and changed (aside from Michael Hooper and Rob Valetini) quite a lot in 2021, however consensus seems to be that the right players are being looked at and given some amount of minutes. No complaints.
So what of the players who have been looked at, but not thrust into a 23? Is there room for players beyond that threshold too?
The likes of Tim Anstee, Josh Kemeny, Michael Wells, Colby Fainga’a and Seru Uru have all been included in camps and put under the microscope of the coaching team.
While they each have awesome talent and, for the most part, some blistering speed, the path to the back row is nearly as congested as positions can get.
Personally, my eyes extend beyond this list, as I’m keen to see what the Waratahs can muster with the return of Hooper, to see who stands out between Will Harris and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco.
The battle between Jahrome Brown, Luke Reimer and Rory Scott at the Brumbies is enticing too.
But it is hard to go past the Reds and Wallabies trio group of Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson with Angus Scott-Young freshly returning from a stint in the NPC in New Zealand.
Scrumhalf has the clearest pecking order of the lot.
Nic White, Tate McDermott and Jake Gordon (in that order) have sewn up their squad positions over the last two seasons, leaving realistically only two possible options to usurp over the next season.
Firstly, the sharp-shooting, unused squad member, Ryan Lonergan.
He’s a promising young athlete (just ask Ando from the Pick and Drive Rugby podcast), but he’s also in the often difficult position of being stuck behind the incumbent Test starter at the Brumbies, with White set to get the lion’s share of minutes.
Secondly, there is the four-times-capped Joe Powell, who will have decent competition for a starting spot at the Rebels, but is the most experienced and accurate scrumhalf in their squad.
Either of these two could push for a spot and would be no slouch or consolation if there were an injury, but it will require a very impressive season from either to jump the queue.
At flyhalf, there’s less of a clear hierarchy in the Wallabies’ set-up, but a whole lot of options in the recently announced Super Rugby Pacific squads could all push for a position in the next squad that gets named.
Will Harrison is the only one who has been included in a squad so far.
However, his teammates Ben Donaldson and Tane Edmed will be pushing to take that place as will any of Carter Gordon from the Rebels (set for a full season starting at ten) and Reesjan Pasitoa or Bayley Kuenzle, after linking up with the Force.
Personally, I’m hoping for a close-to-full season of starting at ten for Harrison, Gordon and Pasitoa just to see who emerges as the next playmaker or indeed the successor to the Wallabies’ ten jersey.
But with so much competition and other experienced campaigners able to fill the void in their respective squads, it seems unlikely to eventuate in at least one of these teams.
The midfield combinations have actually been a real strong point for the Wallabies.
While the experience of Matt To’omua at the start of the season wasn’t perhaps as useful as hoped, the injection of Samu Kerevi into a group with Hunter Paisami, Len Ikitau, Izaia Perese and Lalakai Foketi gives plenty of options to consider and invest time into.
But who else is there?
Overseas, we have Duncan Paia’aua and Tevita Kuridrani, two older, experienced players who have been looked at, but not utilised by Rennie in his tenure.
Outside of them, the majority of options from Super Rugby sides have their work cut out for them.
Whoever partners Paisami at the Reds in 2022, whether it be Hamish Stewart, Josh Flook or Isaac Henry, will be worth a look.
But the more reliable options may be the twice-capped Irae Simone or once-capped Kyle Godwin.
How the Force utilise their back line, but in particular their halves and centres, will be something I keenly observe throughout the year.
The outside backs
On the wings, the Wallabies look quite sturdy. Marika Koroibete and Andrew Kellaway have emerged as genuine conversations for World XV inclusion this year and the services of Filipo Daugunu, Tom Wright and Jordan Petaia have been enjoyed too.
Throughout the squads, Jack Maddocks, Andy Muirhead and James Ramm have all been considered, but perhaps the most intriguing prospect has been Suliasi Vunivalu, who has been only hamstring strains away from debuting for the Wallabies.
Outside of them, the young talents Byron Ralston and Mark Nawaqanitawase aren’t far off consideration, but the possibilities for changes exist behind the wings at fullback.
The latter of these two may indeed consider fullback a more feasible pursuit, but with Jock Campbell emerging as the player that missed out, on top of the return of the experienced Jesse Mogg to the Brumbies, the options don’t seem bad, just unsettled.
In fact, the prospect still exists of shifting either Kellaway or Petaia to the back should it emerge that neither Tom Banks or Reece Hodge end up being the man for the job.
Ultimately, the player each team decides to name at fullback could be the biggest determining factor.
As mentioned with the Brumbies’ hookers, surely Mogg returning to either the Waratahs or Force would’ve made more sense.
This can be best concluded by listing ten players (in no particular order) who didn’t play for the Wallabies in 2021, but that I’m keen to see develop as they have something to offer and aren’t far off.
1. Alex Mafi
2. Harry Johnson-Holmes
3. David Porecki
4. Fergus Lee-Warner
5. Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco
6. Jock Campbell
7. Will Harrison
8. Carter Gordon
9. Suliasi Vunivalu
10. Reesjan Pasitoa
Let me know who you’re keen to see grow in the comments below!