One Dingo, 30 Wallabies: a Cup squad selection survey

One Dingo, 30 Wallabies: a Cup squad selection survey

In about 24 hours’ time the 30-man Wallabies squad for the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament will be announced. As I write this, coach Robbie ‘Dingo’ Deans is holed up in a hotel room in Durban, thrashing out his options with the aid of a corkboard and drawing pins, yellow writing pads, a packet of textas, a box of little Lego men, a carton of Dunhills and a litre of Johnnie Walker Black, with only a copy of Bret Harris’s Rocky Elsom: Leader of the Wallabies for company and inspiration.

Not bloody likely. Dingo’s invariable daily routine includes a dip in the surf at sunrise and an hour on the squash court every arvo. He’s a clean-living feller, calm, controlled and intensely focussed. And right now, he has a lot to be intense about. There’s a hell of a lot riding on the roster he’ll make public tomorrow.

Thirty names: the Wallabies who’ll go to New Zealand next month and wage a long campaign for the Webb Ellis Cup. Let’s take a look at the shoo-ins, the should-bes, the contenders, the couldabeens, the log-jams and the possible leaps of faith that Dingo is chewing over.

First, though, what shape does a 30-strong squad have before you start slotting names into it? Is it a match-day 22 plus their best training partners? Should it contain a second complete scrum for training purposes? Do we need third-string choices for key positions like hooker and halfback? What’s the ratio of forwards to backs? None of the answers to those questions is certain, but I suspect Dingo knows his preferred 22 at this point (even if it contains a few injured players) and he’ll be making up the numbers with spare scrummagers and a few key reserves-for-the-reserves. I’m expecting a 19:11 or 20:10 split between forwards and backs.

The time for bolters and smokies has passed; Dingo is selecting his 30 from two known groups:

  • the current Tri Nations Test squad, and
  • a select few injured and recovering players he believes in.

That second group comprises Drew Mitchell, Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne and Richard Brown. Shmoo was our number one winger by far before his injury and pretty much everyone wants him back. He’s booked for a fitness test in Sydney today and the outcome may be known by the time this post goes live. Dingo is known to like BB, who’s been a first-choice 12 and backup 10 in recent Test seasons. I can’t formulate an argument for selecting Horne but Dingo has been seen at Southern Districts matches, or at least one of them, in recent weeks, and the outside centre spot is one that’s a bit of a problem. Brown is another of Dingo’s favourites, but he’ll be lining up behind current Test loosies Scott Higginbotham, Ben McCalman and Matt Hodgson.

Let’s leave the favoured few aside for the moment and look at the tried and tested performers. This is the squad of 40 that was named on 10 July for the Samoa and Tri Nations Tests:

Ben Alexander Ben Daley Dave Dennis Rocky Elsom
Saia Faingaa James Hanson Scott Higginbotham Matt Hodgson
James Horwill Sekope Kepu Salesi Ma’afu Ben McCalman
Stephen Moore Dean Mumm Wycliff Palu David Pocock
Tatafu Polota-Nau Beau Robinson Benn Robinson Radike Samo
Nathan Sharpe Rob Simmons James Slipper Sitaleki Timani
Dan Vickerman Adam Ashley-Cooper Kurtley Beale Luke Burgess
Quade Cooper Rod Davies Anthony Faingaa Will Genia
Mark Gerrard Matt Giteau Digby Ioane Pat McCabe
Luke Morahan James O’Connor Nick Phipps Lachlan Turner

The split in that squad is 25:15, by the way. It includes a few injured big names who had little or no hope of playing in the Tri Nations, such as aces Tatafu Polota-Nau and Cliffy Palu. There’s also second-string prop James Slipper, who’s joining Mitchell in today’s fitness test, and second-choice halfback Luke Burgess, who’s had no game time since his hand healed but has been selected on the bench for the last two Tri Nations matches.

We can scratch a few of those 40 names already, starting with Benn Robinson, and that’s a tragedy I won’t dwell on. Hanson and Davies were blooded for experience and then put aside; Mumm, Morahan and Dennis haven’t been sighted and I can’t see Dingo taking take them forward from here. Gerrard and Turner are out in the cold, the latter perhaps a victim of the the 5:2 Test bench weighting—once the reserve halfback was selected there’s been room for only Ant Faingaa on the pine. But I’m going to leave Lachie hanging for the moment because he’s another option for covering outside centre.

Of the 40-minus-Fatcat, which players have emerged as Dingo’s preferences? Let’s have a look at the 22s for the four Test matches played to date:

No. Samoa TN1 TN3 TN4
1 Kepu Kepu Kepu Kepu
2 Moore Moore Moore Moore
3 Alexander Alexander Alexander Alexander
4 Timani Simmons Simmons Horwill
5 Sharpe Horwill Horwill Sharpe
6 Elsom Elsom Elsom Elsom
7 Hodgson Pocock Pocock Pocock
8 McCalman McCalman McCalman Higginbotham
9 Phipps Genia Genia Genia
10 Giteau Cooper Cooper Cooper
11 Ioane Ioane Ioane Ioane
12 McCabe McCabe McCabe McCabe
13 Ashley-Cooper Ashley-Cooper Ashley-Cooper Ashley-Cooper
14 Davies O’Connor O’Connor O’Connor
15 Gerrard Beale Beale Beale
16 Hanson S. Faingaa S. Faingaa S. Faingaa
17 Cowan Cowan Ma’afu Ma’afu
18 Vickerman Sharpe Timani Timani
19 Higginbotham Hodgson Samo McCalman
20 Robinson Higginbotham McCalman Samo
21 Genia Phipps Burgess Burgess
22 Beale A. Faingaa A. Faingaa A. Faingaa

There are thirty-two names there, and I’ve already discounted three of them (Gerrard, Hanson and Davies). The remaining 29 are two run-on props and two reserves, two hookers, five locks, seven back-rowers (that’s 17 forwards), three halfbacks, two five-eighths, one inside and one outside centre, two wingers, one fullback and a spare centre.

If we take those 29 and add the elite injured squad members, plus the non-squad Dingo favourites, we have a list of 36 names. That’s the pool that Dingo is trying to trim to 30. Shouldn’t be hard, eh? Let’s try it and see what we come up with.

First, there are four blokes who pick themselves, and have no serious competition for their starting positions: our captain and blindside flanker, Rocky Elsom; openside flanker David Pocock; halfback Will Genia; and five-eighth Quade Cooper, without whom the Wallabies won’t make it past their quarter-final. Dingo is known to be an unconventional thinker but if he doesn’t name those four we’ll know he’s gone rabid and we’ll have to shoot him.

Next come three stars—gamebreaking high-performers who’ve proved themselves Dingo favourites: James O’Connor, Digby Ioane and Kurtley Beale. Again, only in a fit of madness would Dingo leave these names off his list.

Staying in the backline, centres Pat McCabe and Adam Ashley-Cooper have played all four Tests and it’s clear Dingo sees them as incumbents. I’m not sure that either will be in the starting XV come the finals, but they’ll be in the 30 tomorrow. So the first-choice players for positions 9 to 15 are in, and I’m adding reserve halfback Luke Burgess as another sure thing.

In the forwards, incumbent front-rowers Sekope Kepu, Squeaky Moore and Ben Alexander are obviously Dingo’s preferred combination, and among the locks Nathan Sharpe and Big Kev Horwill have cemented their premier status.

That’s 15 names we’ll definitely see in tomorrow’s list—seven forwards and eight backs. The remaining 15 spots are the ones Dingo is sweating over. Let’s survey the options, from loosehead to fullback.

Props: There will be four taken over, and possibly a fifth. Salesi Ma’afu and Pek Cowan have had the bench spot in the Test 22s and it’s clear Dingo sees them as valuable trainers and viable backups. James Slipper is the last contender.

Hookers: We need to take at least two, and Tatafu Polota-Nau is equal in standing to Moore. But TPN lives under an injury cloud and I think Dingo will want a third rake training on, and that’s Saia Faingaa.

Locks: As with the props, there’ll be two or three more named tomorrow. Expect Dan Vickerman to be picked; Dingo has always wanted him in the squad and he’s been sent to clubland to get match-fit while the other contenders are rotated through the Test 22. Sitaleki Timani and Rob Simmons have been given chances; Timani did not shine against Samoa and Simmons’s work rate in his two games was not high. Nonetheless, there are no other contenders save for Dean Mumm, who’s been grunting away for his club.

Back row: Cliffy Palu is the nearest thing we have to a first-choice Number 8, and I believe he’ll be named and carried for as long as it takes to get him ready to play. A first-string back row of Elsom-Pocock-Palu is formidable, but when it comes to backups which way will Dingo go—will he pick a proper 7 (Beau Robinson, surely) and 8 (Radike Samo, ditto), or will he count on utility loosies Scott Higginbotham, Matt Hodgson, Ben McCalman and Dick Brown to cover 6, 7 and 8? Dingo loves the utes, and I could see him selecting all four, but with Palu’s durability so dubious I think he’ll have Samo in the squad and take three of them. (But I think Beau should go, and I hope he does.)

Moving back from the scrum, the next question is whether a third halfback is desired. Dingo has blooded Nick Phipps and I reckon he’s grooming him to be the reserve scrummie next year. So I think he’ll carry him in the squad for the experience, but it would take an emergency before he gets game time.

Five-eighth is where it starts to get tricky. We know that Rabbit O’Connor and Kurtley Beale can play at 10 but I’m pretty sure Dingo has them where he wants them—at the back. So there are two possible back-ups for Cooper: Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes. One has fallen from favour and the other is coming back from a serious injury. They’ve been playing club footy, neither with a 10 on his back; both are better suited to inside centre but they’re not first choices for the gold No. 12 jersey. Giteau can play at 9, 10 and 12 and Barnes can do 10, 12 and 15. Would you pick both in a squad? I don’t think so, unless you were being really conservative and stacking the deck with multiple fall-backs. We could weigh one against the other for hours but I think it will come down to the fact that Dingo likes Barnes and Giteau has been on the outer since the Samoa Test. If both get picked it will prove I know nothing.

If Barnes is in the squad, the big question when it comes to centres is ‘is there room for Ant Faingaa?’ Damn, but he made a strong claim when came onto the field in Durban. And what about Rob Horne—can he come into the RWC squad off a handful of club games? Ashley-Cooper has been solid but unremarkable at 13 and I could well believe that Dingo has written a question mark over the position, and intends to use the pool matches to find his best option. Like Lachie Turner, the Earl can play 13 and 15 but does his best work on the wing as a powerful finisher. As with the back row, there are so many possible combinations and permutations using these utility players that discussion just goes in circles.

Wings: Drew Mitchell is the last name on Dingo’s master list and I think the fitness test will put him in or out—it’s as simple as that. If Shmoo is out, Turner probably goes in.

Fullback: With Gerrard unused since the Samoa Test, my guess is that Dingo feels he can cover 15 with Ashley-Cooper and Barnes.

Enough talk. I’d better throw down my guess at the 30, because I’m going to ask you to do the same. Here it is:

Props: Kepu, Alexander, Cowan, Ma’afu, Slipper
Hookers: Moore, Polota-Nau, S. Faingaa
Locks: Sharpe, Horwill, Vickerman, Simmons
Flankers: Elsom, Pocock
No. 8s: Palu, Samo
6, 7, 8 cover: Hodgson, McCalman, Higginbotham
Halfbacks: Genia, Burgess
Five-eighth: Cooper
Centres: McCabe, Ashley-Cooper, Horne
10, 12, 15 cover: Barnes
Wingers: Ioane, O’Connor, Mitchell
Fullback: Beale

What do you reckon? Am I thinking like Dingo here? (And is that remotely a good thing?) Go ahead and weigh in with your version of the 30 in the comments thread. (But please use some sort of formatting to break up your list—a string of 30 surnames is hard to scan.) And tune in tomorrow for G&GR’s coverage of the squad announcement.


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