Michael Hooper’s judicial reprieve has added to Michael Cheika’s selection headache as the Wallabies coach ponders his best line-up to take on the all-conquering All Blacks.
Hooper’s availability for next week’s Rugby Championship decider in Sydney despite being found guilty of striking Pumas five-eighth Nicolas Sanchez leaves Cheika with a glut of back-row talent as Wycliff Palu returns to the mix.
The destructive No.8 has been rested from Australia’s first two Tests of the season, wins over South Africa and Argentina, but will be included in Cheika’s squad named on Friday.
Cheika will likely find it impossible to leave out champion flanker David Pocock following his powerhouse first Test start in three years in Mendoza last weekend and will also want to max out Hooper as the Wallabies chase their first southern hemisphere crown since 2011.
How Cheika balances his back row will be among several talking points when Cheika reveals his squad for the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup battle at ANZ Stadium.
The back-to-back outings against the top-ranked Kiwis on August 8 and 15 and a rare Test against USA in Chicago in early September will be Cheika’s last three looks before he settles on a 31-man World Cup squad.
Only eight players have started in both of Australia’s first two Tests this winter, suggesting Cheika is halfway there when it comes to nailing down his first-choice XV.
But there are still several big gaps to be filled, some tough decisions to be made and practically zero margin for error.
There’s also a new face to consider – former Test lock Kane Douglas, who could be thrown straight back into the Australian set-up after sorting out his release from Irish club Leinster.
Douglas will be eligible for Wallabies selection the moment he puts pen to paper with a Super Rugby club, and it’s believed his signing with the Queensland Reds is imminent – and may even happen on Friday.
Provided he is over the back injury which had ruined the second half of his season in Ireland, Douglas is a strong chance to be called up to provide competition for incumbent pair Rob Simmons and Will Skelton.
Quade Cooper’s patchy form might have given Bernard Foley the upper hand in the battle for the No.10 jersey – but, then again, Cheika could opt to give the enigmatic Queenslander one last crack against New Zealand, his long-time tormenters.
Then there’s Will Genia (knee), Matt Giteau (nose) and Rob Horne (calf), who all missed the Argentina trip due to injury, while Matt Toomua lasted only 10 minutes in Mendoza before suffering a concussion.