Dave Rennie says he won’t “give away Test caps” to “keep people happy” within the squad, as the Wallabies coach encouraged his players to solve the selection debate themselves ahead of next year’s World Cup.
The rebuild required from 2020 is long over, but still questions hover over the make-up of the team just 14 months out from the World Cup as Rennie named a 36-man squad for the two-Test tour of Argentina.
In particular, the inability for anyone to step up and make their mark in the No.15 jersey remains the biggest issue in a squad that is building but needs to win.
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Despite Tom Banks never nailing down the role over the past two years, such is the openness of the position that Rennie is still contemplating him for next year even though the injured fullback is heading to Japan at year’s end.
While Rennie wasn’t helped by Banks’ long-term arm injury, which was compounded by injuries to Andrew Kellaway (hamstring) and Jordan Petaia (concussion), the third-year Wallabies coach is no closer to knowing who will wear the crucial No .15 jersey in France next year.
Versatile backs Tom Wright and Reece Hodge spent time in the position during the series, with the latter called into the squad to start at fullback in Sydney after missing selection initially. While Kurtley Beale, who had played in the role during the past three World Cups, will come back into the selection frame in September as he recovers from his own injury.
With Kellaway to miss the Argentinian leg of the Rugby Championship, Petaia is tipped to start ahead of his Queensland teammate Jock Campbell, who has been called into the squad for the first time after impressing for Australia A during the Pacific Nations Cup.
But time is fast running out to establish who should be in the role, with Kellaway and Campbell safe options but Petaia particularly offering an X-factor that has long tempted Wallabies officials
Indeed new-Argentine coach Michael Cheika, who handed Petaia his debut during the 2019 World Cup, recently called for the prodigious, though injury-prone, talent to start in the role.
“Banks is the incumbent – he hasn’t really ever arrived in that position,” Cheika said on Nine’s Sports Sunday in May.
“Kellaway’s a bit of a new kid on the block. I’m a big Jordan Petaia fan.
“At 15 he gives you something a bit different. Great in the air and if he can build his kicking game, he’s got X-factor as well, he can deliver something from the back.”
Rennie said he was hoping his players would solve the selection conundrum, which has proven problematic ever since Israel Folau was stood down and ultimately sacked.
“It is a position that is competitive,” Rennie said.
“When you look at Tom (Banks), Tom is heading away to Japan. He could be one that we bring back next year based on what we need in the group but in that time (hopefully) Kells (Kellaway) or a Jordy (Petaia) may have established themselves in the 15 jersey.
“We will allow the players to make that decision and hopefully injury doesn’t dictate that?”
Meanwhile, Samu Kerevi’s departure to the Australian Sevens program for the Commonwealth Games has seen French-bound Irae Simone called in to “fill a hole”, while Waratahs midfielder Lalakai Foketi will also put pressure on Hunter Paisami and Len Ikitau.
Kerevi’s absence has also allowed Rennie to pick overseas-based star Rory Arnold.
Arnold is no certainty to play as he builds hit fitness, but his return, as well as Darcy Swain’s return from suspension, stiffens up the forward pack that is missing locks Izack Rodda (foot) and Cadeyrn Neville (MCL).
Prop Angus Bell will miss the next “four to five” weeks with a toe injury, which has also been seen Rebels front-rower Matt Gibbon called up for the first time.
He is one of four uncapped players included alongside Campbell, Jed Holloway and prop Pone Fa’amausili.
Openside flanker Fraser McRreight meanwhile returns but Rennie said the form of Pete Samu meant the Reds star would likely play a second fiddle to captain Michael Hooper.
“I’m loath to give away Test caps just to keep people happy,” Rennie said.
“As we’ve seen in New Zealand, people queued up for a long time behind Richie McCaw and you’ve got to earn the right to play.
“So Fraser’s been really good and his job is to play so well that we can’t leave him out and we’re picking him ahead of Hoops.
“It takes a bit of patience and perseverance.”
Having reviewed the series defeat to England, the Wallabies coach, whose winning percentage is an unflattering 39 per cent, said the feeling was one of “frustration” and said he believed Cheika’s Pumas would kick more than what was previously seen when he was the Australian national coach.
“It was a frustrating review,” he said.
“As coaches we have all done it in isolation and then got together and had a chat about what’s important to be able to make shifts and work before we jump on a plane for Argentina.
“I’m not certain of the role Cheik played (as an assistant coach under Mario Ledesma), how big a role it was,” Rennie said.
“Certainly the team he coached here in Australia, they wanted to keep the ball and use the ball and it looks like they’re kicking a bit more now than when he was when he was coaching the Wallabies.
“But they’re a team that’s very good (and) they fill the field and I know Cheik will have a big defensive focus around that.”
Wallabies squad to tour Argentina (age, team, Tests played)
Allan Alaalatoa (28, Brumbies, 55 Tests)
Rory Arnold (32, TBC, 29 Tests)
Jock Campbell (27, Queensland Reds, uncapped)
Quade Cooper (34, Kintetsu Liners, 75 Tests)
Pone Fa’amausili (25, Melbourne Rebels, uncapped)
Folau Fainga’a (27, Brumbies, 28 Tests)
Lalakai Foketi (27, NSW Waratahs, 1 Test)
Nick Frost (22, Brumbies, 2 Tests)
Matt Gibbon (27, Melbourne Rebels, uncapped)
Jake Gordon (29, NSW Waratahs, 12 Tests)
Reece Hodge (27, Melbourne Rebels, 55 Tests)
Michael Hooper (c) (30, NSW Waratahs, 121 Tests)
Jed Holloway (29, NSW Waratahs, uncapped)
Len Ikitau (23, Brumbies, 15 Tests)
Marika Koroibete (29, Saitama Wild Knights, 45 Tests)
Rob Leota (25, Melbourne Rebels, 9 Tests)
Noah Lolesio (22, Brumbies, 12 Tests)
Lachlan Lonergan (22, Brumbies, 4 Tests)
Tate McDermott (23, Queensland Reds, 16 Tests)
Fraser McReight (23, Queensland Reds, 2 Tests)
James O’Connor (32, Queensland Reds, 63 Tests)
Hunter Paisami (24, Queensland Reds, 17 Tests)
Jordan Petaia (22, Queensland Reds, 18 Tests)
Matt Philip (28, Melbourne Rebels, 23 Tests)
David Porecki (29, NSW Waratahs, 3 Tests)
Pete Samu (30, Brumbies, 22 Tests)
Irae Simone (27, Brumbies, 2 Tests)
Scott Sio (30, Brumbies, 70 Tests)
James Slipper (33, Brumbies, 117 Tests)
Darcy Swain (25, Brumbies, 11 Tests)
Taniela Tupou (26, Queensland Reds, 40 Tests)
Rob Valetini (23, Brumbies, 21 Tests)
Suliasi Vunivalu (26, Queensland Reds, 1 Test)
Nic White (32, Brumbies, 50 Tests)
Harry Wilson (22, Queensland Reds, 11 Tests)
Tom Wright (24, Brumbies, 12 Tests)