Tom Wright, Reece Hodge and Pete Samu have paid the price for the Wallabies’ underwhelming start in 2023, with Eddie Jones leaving out the trio for the July 29 Bledisloe Cup opener against the All Blacks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The trio are the big omissions in Jones’ 34-man Wallabies squad, which is seeking to end its 21-year Bledisloe Cup drought.
Hodge struggled in the Wallabies’ opener against the Springboks in Pretoria playing in the midfield and was left out of their home Test in Sydney.
A forgettable 10-minute period late in the Wallabies’ 34-31 loss to Argentina last week exposed Wright’s shortcomings.
Samu’s axing is the most surprising. A regular under Dave Rennie and someone who injected pace off the bench in the back-row, the French-bound forward’s versatility made him a constant selection in recent years.
But having been looked over for World Cup selection in 2019, Samu now faces a fight to get back into the mix.
Rebels back-rower Josh Kemeny, who made his debut off the bench last week, and prop Matt Gibbon have also been excluded from the squad.
Injured co-captain Michael Hooper is the only player listed in the rehab group, with backs Andrew Kellaway and Jordan Petaia set to return against the All Blacks. Explosive Waratahs back-rower Langi Gleeson is also in the selection radar having recovered from injury, too.
Taniela Tupou re-joins the group, having been released to make his comeback from a devastating Achilles injury against Tonga last week.
Brumbies prop Blake Schoupp and Rebels front-rower Pone Fa’amausili have also been retained, as two of six props that are likely on standby for Tupou and Bell, who are fresh from their comebacks.
Maligned hooker Jordan Uelese and winger Suliasi Vunivalu, as expected, have also been retained in the squad. As has Ben Donaldson, who is one of two players bracketed as a ‘utility’ option along with Dylan Pietsch.
The decision to include Hooper in the rehab group could be an indicator that Jones won’t rush his co-captain back from injury after tweaking his calf ahead of last week’s loss.
“We’re very disappointed with the results during stage one of our campaign,” Jones said in a brief Rugby Australia statement.
“We need to find more in stage two and Melbourne will be a ground where we will find our best.”
Jones’ decision to name a 34-man squad isn’t surprising.
The Wallabies coach toyed with the idea of naming his World Cup squad for the Bledisloe series. For the French campaign, Jones will only be able to name 33 players.
Why remains to be seen, but some believe it was a case of the Wallabies coach wanting to narrow his focus ahead of September’s World Cup.
Rugby insiders also believe Jones may have wanted to relieve some of the pressure of World Cup uncertainty hovering over their heads, too.
But by not naming it, he has afforded himself more time and wriggle room to get his selection right.
On Wednesday, Jones said he was confident his Wallabies could stretch the All Blacks despite their blistering start to The Rugby Championship.
“Have we learned from the game? Yes, we will learn from the game, and we’ll be better for the New Zealand game,” Jones told reporters in Brisbane at the unveiling of the Wallabies’ fixture list for the 2025 home series against the Lions.
“I quite fancy ourselves against New Zealand.
“You look at their first 20 minutes against South Africa, it was almost perfect rugby. Every kick they won in the air, they were good on the gain line, very smart about the way they played.
“If we’re able to match that in the first 20 minutes and put a bit of pressure on them, which they haven’t had this year, then funny things can happen.”
Jones surmised that the All Blacks’ fast start in 2023 was in part down to New Zealand Rugby’s decision to appoint Scott Robertson as Ian Foster’s replacement following the World Cup.
“Usually they have a much more moderated start and build up to the World Cup, but I think because of the change in the coach post the World Cup they’ve said ‘stuff this we’re going to hard right from the first minute,'” Jones said.
Next Saturday’s Test at the MCG will be the first clash at the venue between the trans-Tasman rivals since John Connolly’s Wallabies beat the All Blacks 20-15 in 2007.
Wallabies squad for Bledisloe series:
Allan Alaalatoa (29, ACT Brumbies, 66 Tests)
Richie Arnold (33, Stade Toulousain, 2 Tests)
Angus Bell (22, NSW Waratahs, 21 Tests)
Pone Fa’amausili (26, Melbourne Rebels, 4 Tests)
Matt Faessler (24, Queensland Reds, uncapped)
Nick Frost (23, ACT Brumbies, 10 Tests)
Langi Gleeson (21, NSW Waratahs, 3 Tests)
Jed Holloway (30, NSW Waratahs, 11 Tests)
Tom Hooper (22, ACT Brumbies, 1 Test)
Rob Leota (26, Melbourne Rebels, 14 Tests)
Fraser McReight (24, Queensland Reds, 11 Tests)
Matt Philip (29, Melbourne Rebels, 28 Tests)
David Porecki (30, NSW Waratahs, 12 Tests)
Will Skelton (31, La Rochelle, 26 Tests)
Blake Schoupp (23, ACT Brumbies, uncapped)
James Slipper (co-captain) (34, ACT Brumbies, 129 Tests)
Taniela Tupou (27, Queensland Reds, 47 Tests)
Jordan Uelese (26, Melbourne Rebels, 17 Tests)
Rob Valetini (24, ACT Brumbies, 32 Tests)
Quade Cooper (35, Kintetsu Liners, 78 Tests)
Lalakai Foketi (28, NSW Waratahs, 5 Tests)
Carter Gordon (22, Melbourne Rebels, 2 Tests)
Andrew Kellaway (27, Melbourne Rebels, 21 Tests)
Samu Kerevi (29, Urayasu D-Rocks, 43 Tests)
Marika Koroibete (30, Saitama Wild Knights, 53 Tests)
Ryan Lonergan (25, ACT Brumbies, uncapped)
Tate McDermott (24, Queensland Reds, 23 Tests)
Mark Nawaqanitawase (22, NSW Waratahs, 4 Tests)
Izaia Perese (26, NSW Waratahs, 3 Tests)
Jordan Petaia (23, Queensland Reds, 25 Tests)
Suliasi Vunivalu (27, Queensland Reds, 2 Tests)
Nic White (33, ACT Brumbies, 61 Tests)
Ben Donaldson (23, NSW Waratahs, 2 Tests)
Dylan Pietsch (25, NSW Waratahs, uncapped)
Michael Hooper (co-captain) (31, NSW Waratahs, 125 Tests)
Not considered for selection due to injury
2023 Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup Fixtures
Wallabies 12 defeated by South Africa 43 on Saturday 8 July at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Wallabies 31 defeated by Argentina 34, Saturday 15 July at CommBankStadium, Sydney
Wallabies v New Zealand, 7:45pm AEST, Saturday 29 July at Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne
Wallabies v New Zealand, 2:35pm NZST/12:35pm AEST Saturday 5 August at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin