Wallabies coach Michael Cheika says he has around half a dozen big decisions to make before settling on his 31-man World Cup squad, due to be unveiled on Friday.
Back in Sydney after their bitter Bledisloe Cup defeat, focus in the Australian camp has shifted to next month’s tournament in England and Wales and more urgently, making the final cuts to the wider training squad.
There are huge calls to be made all over the park, in every row of the scrum and in particular, the 9-10-12 playmaking axis, which seems to be stuck in a continual stage of selection flux.
The six or so “key choices” Cheika estimates he has to make will be influenced by what type of squad configuration the Australian staff opts to go with, and how many specialist position players will be included.
“The rest we’d say is locked in from our point of view,” Cheika told reporters after landing back home from Auckland, the night after their 41-13 defeat to New Zealand.
“I believe we’re getting close to knowing exactly who we’re liking in what roles… but we’ve got until Friday.
“We’re just going to let the day sink in the basic idea that we have over the next few days.”
Cheika said he had no regrets over the amount of changes he made to the Wallaby team for the Bledisloe decider, some of which clearly backfired.
“That was always the plan,” he said.
“We’ve got to back all our players and I do, I back any of the players selected. If we want to grow the depth in the team that’s how we’ve got to do it.”
Having exposed his players to the unforgiving cauldron of Eden Park, Cheika should have learned plenty about which of his them will stand up come World Cup time – in particular, the blockbuster pool clash against England at Twickenham.
Australia clearly lost out with an underdone Wycliff Palu in the back-row instead of David Pocock, while Quade Cooper once again had another horror show at Eden Park, with his second-half yellow card triggering a penalty try before the All Blacks capitalised on their man advantage with two more tries.
But the rest of Cooper’s 48 minutes earned him a pass mark from Cheika, whose view on the polarising five-eighth is really the only one that matters.
Cheika’s other options at 10 are looking less appealing by the minute, but neither Bernard Foley or Matt Toomua are in any danger of missing the cut.
Then there’s the three-way battle between Nic White, Nick Phipps and Will Genia for what’s likely to be two halfback vacancies, given the versatile Matt Giteau can act as cover.
Winger Taqele Naiyaravoro made one last pitch for inclusion by scoring three tries for a World XV in a 45-20 win over Japan in Tokyo on Saturday.
But Cheika is unlikely to pull any major surprises on Friday, and is expected to lean on the names who carried the Wallabies through the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe series.