Wallabies coach Michael Cheika admits he’s rolling the dice by taking only two specialist halves and hookers to Britain for next month’s Rugby World Cup.
Lock James Horwill, Australia’s captain at the 2011 World Cup, was the highest-profile omission from the 31-man squad unveiled on Friday.
But the big gamble, more so than halfback Nic White also being overlooked, was the selection of the ever-vulnerable Tatafu Polota-Nau as the only back-up to first-choice hooker and captain Stephen Moore.
With a long history of head knocks, Polota-Nau earlier this year said he’d hang up his boots if concussed again.
Perhaps Cheika considered such a scenario because, under World Cup rules, the Wallabies can only draft in a replacement if a player suffers a tournament-ending injury.
But that doesn’t cover the possibility of history repeating itself after an ailing Moore was a late game-day scratching from Australia’s opening match against Ireland at the last World Cup, a pool game the Wallabies lost, derailing Robbie Deans’ side.
Should Moore or Polota-Nau be forced out of a match this time around, the Wallabies would have to play with only one hooker.
“I suppose you could always say there is a bit of a risk,” Cheika said.
“We feel we’ve got enough back-up that can cover in the short-team situation and we feel we’ve got excellent cover outside of the squad with both (hooker) James Hanson and Nic White in case we do get an injury.”
Cheika said Horwill was desperately unlucky to miss out as selectors preferred Kane Douglas and Dean Mumm, who both recently returned from stints in Europe, along with lineout chief Rob Simmons and giant Will Skelton as Australia’s four locks.
“What it (Horwill’s omission) allowed me to do was have two teams that we can train accordingly and turn around according to the draw for the first part of the tournament,” Cheika said.
“I felt that was the right balance for what we are going to do.
“There’s some happy people and some very disappointed people.”
White was the match-winning reserve in the Wallabies’ Bledisloe Cup Test win in Sydney this month before starting in the return 41-13 loss to the All Blacks in Auckland.
But the coach could only find room for two specialist halfbacks in Nick Phipps and Will Genia, with utility Matt Giteau to serve as an emergency No.9.
Giteau’s selection for a third World Cup caps off his “surreal” return to the Wallabies’ ranks following the veteran midfielder’s move to France after being controversially omitted from Deans’ squad four years ago.
Cheika will take 14 backs – including five wing options – and 17 forwards, to the World Cup, where Australia open their campaign against Fiji in Cardiff on September 23.
Horwill, White, Hanson, Sam Carter, David Dennis, Tetera Faulkner, Scott Higginbotham, Samu Kerevi, Christian Lealiifano and Taqele Naiyaravoro have all been named in extended squad that will travel to Chicago for the lead-up Test against the USA on September 5.
The bolter in the squad is uncapped Melbourne Rebels prop Toby Smith, who is among 13 World Cup rookies.
The squad features a total of 1236 Test caps, led by first-time World Cup skipper Moore and vice-captains Michael Hooper and 108-Test stalwart Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Wallabies’ World Cup squad:-
Backs – Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper (vice-capt), Rob Horne, Drew Mitchell, Henry Speight, Joe Tomane, Tevita Kuridrani, Kurtley Beale, Matt Giteau, Matt Toomua, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Nick Phipps.
Forwards – Wycliff Palu, David Pocock, Michael Hooper (vice-capt), Ben McCalman, Sean McMahon, Scott Fardy, Kane Douglas, Dean Mumm, Rob Simmons, Will Skelton, Stephen Moore (capt), Tatafu Polota-Nau, Greg Holmes, Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Toby Smith.