Cheika conundrum: Biggest headaches for Wallabies coach
A MONTH out from their crucial three Test series against Ireland, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika still has much to ponder.
While Cheika will have most of his squad privately locked in, looking in from the outside at least a third of the selections remain up for debate.
Hooker will surely be causing the most consternation.
For a decade the only real question was who would start out of Tatafu Polota-Nau and Stephen Moore.
But with Leicester's Polota-Nau likely to be given a breather following 15 months of non stop action, and Moore retired, the Wallabies are now worryingly lacking experience in such a crucial position.
Ireland's captain Rory Best - a veteran of 111 Tests - will be licking his lips at the prospect of schooling a rookie hooker.
The make-up of the back-row and the back three will also harvest much discussion.
Interestingly, the selection questions Cheika will be scratching his head over are the same issues his counterpart Eddie Jones is experiencing with England.
England's World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson bemoaned a lack of talent and emerging depth in a recent article in The Times.
At least for Jones the debate over Dylan Hartley's stranglehold over the No 2 jersey has been taken out of his hands, with the England captain ruled out of their June tour of South Africa due to long-term concussion issues.
Lions starting hooker Jamie George, who because of leadership reasons has ben confined to the "finishing role" with England, will now get a clear run at making the position his own.
But the make-up and success of Jones' back-row and back three formations for the series against the Springboks could well define his tenure with England.
To stick with the old brigade (Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Mike Brown) or turn to new talent (Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds, Elliot Daly and Henry Slade)?
So at least Cheika can take solace in that he isn't the only high profile international coach with selection headaches.
If indeed Polota-Nau is rested, the man likely to be called up to start would be Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese.
But the 21-year-old, who came off the bench twice for the Wallabies during last year's Rugby Championship, is currently sidelined with a troublesome arm injury which is expected to keep him out of action until the end of May.
Even if he is fit though, Uelese has been relegated behind Anaru Rangi with Dave Wessels particularly impressed by his work rate and intensity.
But Rangi's discipline has been poor over the last month and his inability to find the mark at the lineout has meant his backline has had limited opportunities from set-piece play.
Elsewhere, Brandon Paenga-Amosa has been one of the finds of the season for the Reds and his impressive display against the world's best hooker, Malcolm Marx, won't have gone unnoticed.
The Waratahs' lineout has improved under Simon Cron this year, which bodes well for Damien Fitzpatrick, who has experience and a combination with prop Sekope Kepu, but might not have the work rate and muscle to be a true Test hooker.
Brumbies rake Folau Fainga'a is a good young prospect and Nathan Charles (four Tests) has put his hand up for a recall after being flown in to the Rebels from England.
The great shame in this group is that Tolu Latu's talent is being wasted.
After a poor off-season, Latu has fallen out of favour at the Waratahs, but he remains the most talented and could yet make a late run.
Whoever is chosen at hooker, at least they'll have some experience outside them with Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Taniela Tupou assured selection.
James Slipper and Tom Robertson will likely battle it out for the final front-row spot.
The second-row will have a sense of familiarity about it with Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold set to feature.
However, Cheika will be hoping that Coleman - one of his first picked last year - can turn his season around after an underwhelming campaign to date.
It appears that the added responsibilities of the captaincy have impacted on his on field output.
The fourth lock remains up in the air.
At the start of the year Reds tyro Lukhan Tui would have been a certainty, but he's missed the vast majority of the season due to suspension and injury and remains sidelined after knee surgery last month.
Rob Simmons' strengths in the set-piece aren't as necessary with Coleman able to run the lineout, while Matt Philip has been solid but his defence has been exposed over the past six weeks.
Tui's lack of game time could pave the way for Kane Douglas to return to the Wallabies fold.
Douglas won't be eligible for next year's World Cup after opting to move to France at season's end, but after finally shaking his knee injury is returning to the form which saw him an integral member in the Waratahs' 2014 Super Rugby title and starter in the World Cup final.
The priority in the series against Ireland must be to win.
And if you're choosing a man to defend for your life, you're having Douglas in that side.
The return of David Pocock will almost certainly see him partner Michael Hooper in the back-row, either at No 8 or blindside, leaving one starting position up for grabs.
With Isi Naisarani ineligible until 2019, Reds back-rower Caleb Timu and Waratahs forward Ned Hanigan are the two favoured for the final position.
Timu offers the Wallabies some much needed hard running.
Hanigan, on the other hand, has some experience under his belt and offers more at the lineout.
The difficulty with a back-row including both Pocock and Hooper is that it lacks size against an Ireland outfit featuring the likes of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson.
If Will Genia is fit he will start at halfback.
Nick Phipps' experience and combination with Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau will also see him included and likely Genia's backup on matchday too.
Phipps' Waratahs teammate Jake Gordon and Joe Powell will likely compete for the third spot in the squad.
Powell has Test experience and has been a regular in the squad over the past two years, but his inconsistent form in 2018 could see Gordon get the final spot.
Gordon's pace, running game and combination with his Waratahs teammates could also be viewed favourably.
Foley will act as the playmaker, with Beale the alternative.
As well as the uncertainty at hooker and blindside flanker, the other great debate is who starts at fullback.
There's a push for Israel Folau to be shifted onto the right wing, but Cheika's preference is for the three time John Eales Medallist to remain at fullback.
It's possible throughout a match he could be used on the right wing at times to take advantage of his aerial prowess and right foot step, but he'll likely remain put in the No 15 jersey.
If he were to be moved onto the wing, Kurtley Beale or Dane Haylett-Petty would be fullback alternatives and if the latter was pushed to the backfield Samu Kerevi could be used at inside centre.
The outside centre options are Brumbies regular Tevita Kuridrani, versatile Rebels back Reece Hodge and Kerevi.
The former two have hardly set the world alight and their indifferent form has reflected their respective clubs' fortunes throughout the season.
Kerevi remains the most potent of the trio.
But, with less than a week to prepare for the Irish, Kuridrani's experience and defensive ability means he's likely to rekindle his midfield combination with Beale.
Cheika has already said that the post-World Cup stage of experimentation is over and the focus is now bedding in combinations ahead of the World Cup.
With that said it's likely that youngsters Jack Maddocks and Hamish Stewart will be looked at closely, with the former in particular pressing for a spot in the 23.
Stewart's some distance away from playing for the Wallabies, but with few alternatives at fly-half it's likely that the Wallabies will look to get him in their system as cover.
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