Eddie Jones accused Michael Cheika of being all “smoke and mirrors” this week – and he might have been onto something.
The Wallabies’ coach has kept his England counterpart and everyone else guessing by naming a 33-man squad for the series-opening Test at Suncorp Stadium on June 11, one that does little to answer the big questions surrounding the make-up of the team.
Cheika was supposed to trim three more names from the contingent, who trained on the Sunshine Coast this week to make it a 30-man group – and the six he did cut, after blocking media from attending their final session on Friday, would have been lucky to play anyway.
Hooker James Hanson, lock Adam Coleman, flanker Liam Gill, rookie halfback Joe Powell and former Bath star Leroy Houston were logical omissions who were edged out by hot competition in their positions, while Mike Harris (hamstring) is injured.
Seven players remain in contention to make their international debuts, including Karmichael Hunt, Samu Kerevi, Dane Haylett-Petty and Reece Hodge.
Cheika said he was trying to keep an “open mind” about selection with some huge decisions looming, particularly around what centre combination the Wallabies would use.
Seven-game Melbourne Rebels utility Hodge – not even included in the original squad – is a shock candidate for the No.12 jersey after seizing his opportunity as a late replacement for Harris.
“Reece has really impressed me this week after being thrown into the deep end. It’s not just about being in the environment for him now and I know he’ll be pushing for selection in the match-day 23,” Cheika said.
The coach gave a strong hint Tevita Kuridrani would stay put at No.13, despite Israel Folau’s seamless shift there for the NSW Waratahs.
“He’s played in every game I’ve been involved with here and that’s one of his massive strengths – defence,” Cheika said.
Christian Lealiifano has also been named, and Cheika says Camp Wallaby is “blowing the snake charmer’s whistle” in the hope his pregnant partner gives birth over the weekend so he can join the team, having missed the entire Sunshine Coast camp.
Hunt, too, is in the mix after overcoming a persistent groin strain.
While Cheika indicated last year’s Fardy-Pocock-Hooper starting back-row was all but locked in, he said he was losing sleep over the surplus of riches he had in that area.
Gill remains a hard-luck story despite two years of quality form, but a bench spot could beckon for Sean McMahon, while Houston’s series might not yet be done either.
“Some of what we’ve seen from some of the guys who have rotated in there like Sean McMahon, Liam Gill, Leroy Houston, Wycliff Palu has been excellent,” Cheika said.
“Obviously, we can play the back row in certain ways, either with the two opensides or in the more-traditional sense and I think we’ll use both of those options throughout the series.”
Wallabies: Alan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Scott Fardy (all Brumbies), Israel Folau (NSW Waratahs), Bernard Foley (Waratahs), Nick Frisby (Queensland Reds), Dane Haylett-Petty (Western Force), Reece Hodge (Melbourne Rebels), Greg Holmes (Reds), Michael Hooper (Waratahs), Rob Horne (Waratahs), James Horwill (Harlequins), Karmichael Hunt (Reds), Sekope Kepu (Waratahs), Samu Kerevi (Reds), Tevita Kuridrani (Brumbies), Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies), Ben McCalman (Force), Sean McMahon (Rebels), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Luke Morahan (Force), Dean Mumm (Waratahs), Taqele Naiyaravoro, Wycliff Palu, Nick Phipps (all Waratahs), David Pocock (Brumbies), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Waratahs), Rob Simmons (Reds), Scott Sio (Brumbies), Will Skelton (Waratahs), James Slipper (Reds), Toby Smith (Rebels).