Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has welcomed Eddie Jones’ promise of an “enormous scrap” in next month’s blockbuster series with England with a selection smokescreen and wry grin.
While the England coach is vowing to whitewash Australia in the three-Test battle and taunting his former Randwick teammate with “Bodyline” threats, Cheika kept Jones guessing on Thursday with the naming of a vastly new-look 39-man training squad.
The inclusion of 10 uncapped rookies, including 21-year-old bolter Joe Powell, code-hopping utility back Karmichael Hunt and World Cup discard James Horwill, raised more questions than answers.
If Jones and his Six Nations champions were hoping for insight into Australia’s possible starting XV for the first Test on June 11 in Brisbane – or even the match-day 23 – the non-selection of European-based World Cup finalists Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau and Will Genia wouldn’t have helped either.
Cheika was intent on giving nothing away, other than a promise that the Wallabies would be ready to meet England head on.
“I’m not a big statement maker. I like to keep it quiet most of the time,” Cheika said.
“I’ve heard a lot of (Jones’s) comments and I think that’s awesome because the contact, that’s a part of the game.
“I loved it and I want my team to love it, the physicality of the game, the aggression etc.”
Nor was Cheika biting at Jones’ favouritism claims despite Australia humiliating the hosts at the World Cup.
“He’s obviously very happy with the team he’s got,” Cheika said.
“He believes he’ll come down here and win 3-0, so that’s his way of motivating his troops.”
The big question mark remains who will fill the Wallabies’ No.12 jumper in Giteau’s absence following Kurtley Beale’s season-ending knee injury.
Cheika said Hunt, Christian Lealiifano and Samu Kerevi were all options.
Many view Nick Stirzaker as Australia’s long-term halfback, but he certainly isn’t the short-term choice with the Melbourne Rebels’ captain overlooked in favour of the little-known Powell.
The biggest halfback bolter since coal miner Steve Merrick was plucked from Singleton 21 years ago, Powell is yet to even start a Super Rugby match for the Brumbies.
“Sometimes, you go with a bit of a gut feel,” Cheika said.
“I know that he hasn’t had a lot of minutes, but the minutes he’s played, he’s looked really good.”
Former captain Horwill earned a recall after being overlooked for the World Cup, while prop Sekope Kepu has also returned from Europe to join the squad.
Fiji-born winger Taqele Naiyaravoro and back-rower Leroy Houston have also cut short stints in Europe to be available.
Other uncapped players include Queensland backs Eto Nabuli and Nick Frisby, Western Force fullback Dane Haylett-Petty and lock Adam Coleman and Brumbies forwards Rory Arnold and Allan Alaalatoa.
But Cheika said their selections came with no guarantees.
“No one’s getting a cap for free,” he said.
“This is a special thing to get to play for Australia.”
Backs – Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Nick Frisby, Mike Harris, Dane Haylett-Petty, Rob Horne, Karmichael Hunt, Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, Luke Morahan, Eto Nabuli, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Nick Phipps, Joe Powell.
Forwards – Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Adam Coleman, Scott Fardy, Liam Gill, James Hanson, Greg Holmes, Michael Hooper, James Horwill, Leroy Houston, Sekope Kepu, Ben McCalman, Sean McMahon, Stephen Moore (capt), Dean Mumm, Wycliff Palu, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, Will Skelton, James Slipper, Toby Smith.