Eddie Jones spoke about the opportunity of Tate McDermott leading a “new era in Australian rugby” ahead of the Wallabies’ Bledisloe return fixture in Dunedin.
Now, having pushed the All Blacks to the final whistle after going down 23-20, the question is whether Jones pushes forward with the “regeneration” of the side or give his aging men one last dance at next month’s World Cup?
Jones will name his 33-man World Cup squad on Thursday evening in Darwin.
The increase from 31 to 33 has been made because of World Rugby’s stronger stance on Head Injury Assessments, with mandatory 12-day stand-down periods for those with concussions seeing the governing body allow teams an additional two players.
That will see most nations likely pick three hookers and three halfbacks, with Michael Cheika previously opting to take two No.9s in 2015 and 2019 with Will Genia and Nic White sharing the duties most recently in Japan.
Season-ending injuries to Allan Alaalatoa and Tom Robertson, who could play on either side of the scrum, might well see Jones select a sixth prop, particularly given Taniela Tupou’s injury concern and the heavy load looming for Angus Bell.
That’s a big number, but the Wallabies’ World Cup campaign could well rest on the shoulders of Bell and Tupou, who must be managed and nurtured throughout if Jones’ men are to end back in Paris in the final fortnight of October.
As such, it could allow youngsters Blake Schoupp and Zane Nonngorr to be called into the squad well before they’re truly ready for such a big tournament.
Should Jones push forward with ushering through the next generation of Wallabies, two players particularly are in doubt to make the trip: co-captain Michael Hooper and veteran halfback Nic White.
While there were questions about whether Hooper’s form leading into the international season, an underwhelming match against the Springboks, where the entire Wallabies pack struggled mentally and the side struggled to get on the same page in Jones’ first Test back in charge, a calf injury has ruled him out of the past three Tests.
Those three missed Tests can’t be understated while Jones has been particularly cagey about the flanker’s return.
“No, he’s a long way away, mate,” Jones said when asked about Hooper’s prognosis.
“I’m saying that he’s got a serious injury and when you’ve got a serious injury there are deadlines and we need to find the deadline.
“When you’ve got a calf injury, sometimes you don’t know how quickly you can recover.”
Asked to clarify whether he was at risk of missing the World Cup, Jones was coy.
“I’ll worry about that when we come up to World Cup selection,” he said.
During that time, Tom Hooper has emerged as someone capable of playing at both openside and blindside flanker while Fraser McReight had a stronger outing in Dunedin to complement his teammates both in the back-row and across the entire forward pack.
His clean steal in the 33rd minute, where he pounced on a falling Damian McKenzie and withstood the attempted cleanouts of Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown, was a moment that reinforced McReight’s ability to get on the ball.
At halfback, White’s struggles from Melbourne somewhat continued in Dunedin where he couldn’t change the tempo and lead the Wallabies home.
His final pass to Quade Cooper, which should not have been spilt was a slow, scrappy ball, for a playmaker looking to take advantage of a four-on-two overlap.
White’s kicking game and big match nature, having won championships in Europe, could still see him board the plane to France but given Jones’ desire to play off the cuff and up-tempo in attack, the 33-year-old halfback seems to be going in a different direction to the Wallabies coach.
Nonetheless, given Ryan Lonergan, a player highly valued by the Brumbies not just as a leader but a player with a fine pass and someone who can put width on the ball as a result, wasn’t used by Jones during the four Tests to date perhaps indicates that if a change is occurring, it could be instead of the 25-year-old.
Could Tawera Kerr-Barlow still be a late addition? The former All Black, who funnily enough grew up in Darwin, won’t go away as a potential bolter.
Rookie Matt Faessler stood up to the pressures of international rugby by executing his lineout throw well against the All Blacks.
How his scrummaging held up will be something Jones will have tried to get to the bottom of though. After all, the Wallabies’ scrum struggled in the second half and with the tight-head prop concerns, Jones will want to ensure his hooker helps them out.
He was also busy across the park and has likely done enough to join Dave Porecki and Jordan Uelese, whose knee issues likely still remain a concern given his late scratching on Saturday.
Nick Frost, Richie Arnold and Will Skelton pick themselves.
Whether Jones can find space for another remains to be seen, but the inclusions of Rob Leota and Jed Holloway particularly could mean there’s no space for Matt Philip. It’s a decision that will go down to the wire.
Michael Hooper, meanwhile, is likely battling with McReight and Langi Gleeson for the final spot.
But given Rob Valetini has been the only specialist No.8 used this year, Jones could well want cover for him.
Gleeson, who missed the start of the TRC as he recovered from injury, is someone who can break the line. But whether he’s got the fitness remains to be seen.
Where that leaves Pete Samu remains to be seen, but given he was dropped from the Bledisloe Cup squad doesn’t bode well.
As for the rest of the backline, Carter Gordon and Quade Cooper shape as the two specialist playmakers. Another will likely be on standby.
It will leave Ben Donaldson and Reece Hodge battling it out as the utility back capable of playing fly-half and fullback. Donaldson seemingly has his nose in front and was preferred for the Bledisloe Cup series.
Jones must consider whether to take three specialist centres or four, not including Jordan Petaia who of course wore the No.13 jersey. That will leave Lalakai Foketi on shaky ground while Hunter Paisami’s injuries (and poor form in matches after briefly returning), likely won’t have helped his cause.
Helping Foketi could be that Samu Kerevi is due to have an operation on his broken hand on Monday, while Len Ikitau is racing the clock to be fit for their World Cup opener in Paris on September 9. Both are expected to be named.
In a way similar to Jordie Barrett at the All Blacks, Petaia could be – and has been spoken about – used at inside centre at a stretch.
Fullback Andrew Kellaway and wings Marika Koroibete and Mark Nawaqanitawase are amongst the first picked.
Will Jones opt for specialist wing cover in the form of Suliasi Vunivalu and Dylan Pietsch? Pietsch, the Waratahs winger who has looked comfortable for Australia A, offers versatility in the sense that he was an openside flanker at schoolboy level.
While Pietsch wasn’t called upon during the Rugby Championship, it’s a factor that could prove handy in the World Cup. Remember Nick Phipps and Radike Samo playing on the wing?
As for Tom Wright, the Brumbies outside back could well have blown his chance after being axed for the Bledisloe series after errors at critical times late in the Wallabies’ loss to Argentina exposed his unfortunate propensity to make the wrong decision at the wrong time.
Jones will also select a Australia A team to take on Portugal at the Stade de France the day before the Wallabies meet France at the same venue on August 26.
That could pave the way for players like Max Jorgensen, Wright and Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, as well as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Folau Fainga’a, to be in the north and on standby if injury strikes.
Jorgensen, 18, recently started running again following his knee-injury suffered against the Crusaders in May.
He is someone that Jones will watch closely.
PREDICTED WALLABIES SQUAD
Hookers: Dave Porecki, Jordan Uelese, Matt Faessler
Props: Angus Bell, James Slipper, Blake Schoupp, Taniela Tupou, Pone Fa’amausili, Zane Nonggorr
Locks: Richie Arnold, Nick Frost, Will Skelton, Jed Holloway
Back-row: Tom Hooper, Rob Leota, Fraser McReight, Rob Valetini, Langi Gleeson
Halfbacks: Tate McDermott, Nic White, Ryan Lonergan
Fly-halves: Carter Gordon, Quade Cooper
Midfield: Samu Kerevi, Len Ikitau, Izaia Perese
Outside backs: Mark Nawaqanitawase, Suliasi Vunivalu, Marika Koroibete, Andrew Kellaway
Utility: Ben Donaldson, Jordan Petaia, DyLan Pietsch.