David Pocock insists vice-captain Michael Hooper’s Wallabies output is underrated as coach Michael Cheika mulls over the future of his ‘Pooper’ back-row ahead of Saturday’s clash with South Africa.
Initially introduced as a World Cup stop-gap last year, Cheika may opt to move away from the dual-openside structure and revert to a more traditional set-up to combat the powerful Springboks in Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash at Suncorp Stadium.
South African locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager present a huge challenge to an Australian lineout that struggled to compete in two comprehensive Bledisloe Cup defeats.
Whether the Wallabies are willing to cede further ground in that department to keep Pocock and Hooper – arguably two of Australia’s best individual players – on the park from the start is the decision Cheika must make.
His other options at No.8, if he shifts openside flanker Hooper to the bench and Pocock to his natural position, are the hard-hitting but undersized Sean McMahon or bigger, uncapped Lopeti Timani.
Pocock refused to offer his opinion on selection matters but said Hooper’s contribution was important.
“He’s probably got a lot of my John Eales Medal votes,” Pocock said.
“I feel like he gets through a huge amount of work, he really contributes and he’s a real leader within the team.
“We’ll leave those comments and speculation to others. For us as players we’re trying to improve that combination and be the best back-row we can be as a group.”
The Springboks are cognizant of Australia’s set piece problems but as they deal with the recriminations of their 26-24 defeat to Argentina last week, assistant coach Mzwandile Stick admitted turning it into attacking dominance like the All Blacks did is another matter.
“Yes, we do create a lot of opportunities for us but we’re guilty of not capitalising on those opportunities,” Stick said.
“We saw they were struggling with their lineouts against New Zealand. Whoever capitalises on the day is going to win the game.”
McMahon played at No.8 for the first time in his Test career during June’s series against England when Pocock was unavailable due to a fractured eye socket, a move described at the time as the biggest gamble of Cheika’s coaching career.
Timani has been a strong performer for the Melbourne Rebels at Super Rugby level and Saturday’s match at Suncorp Stadium – where the Springboks have only won three times in 13 attempts – could present a good opportunity for the 25-year-old to be blooded at international level.
The Wallabies will name their team to face South Africa on Thursday.