Nathan Sharpe (WA): The Force captain surprised many late last year when he put in a series of aggressive and industrious performances on the European tour. Despite a slow start, 2009 has seen him continue this form. His work rate is unquestioned, perhaps it’s just the actual work, and where he does it, which is questioned. He does seem to be running just a little closer to the ruck, and his lineout work is first class. He cops flack for those wide passes of his, but in reality, he has some pretty special skills and perhaps just bears the brunt of being a modern day forward.
Mark Chisolm (ACT): Really stuck his hand up and impressed when Dan Vickerman and James Horwill were ruled out of last year’s European Tour. It culminated in a wonderful try in the test loss to Wales. Chisolm is injured now though. Out for the season. I am not entirely sure whether this is just the Super 14 season, or beyond. Regardless, he won’t be considered for the first round of tests.
The likely candidates:
James Horwill (QLD): Just coming back from injury, ‘Big Kev’ put in an impressive performance in the Reds win over the Bulls. A strong try from close in typified his strength and willingness to take on the defensive line. Has only three more games to show the selectors he is back to full form and fitness. Considering the Reds face the Brumbies, the Crusaders and the Hurricanes to round out the season, it will be a wonderful test for him to build on after the Blues game.
Hugh McMeniman (QLD): The question remains, can he cut it as a test lock? This year he seems to have played better at lock for the Reds. He was awesome for the Wallabies against the Barbarians last year, at lock, against a pack that included Richie McCaw, Schalk Burger, Jerry Collins, Johann Muller, Bakkies Botha and John Smit. Playing in the tight five seems to make him play a more aggressive and involved game, and that can only be a good thing.
Dean Mumm (NSW): In the end it seems that Mumm and McMeniman are competing for the same spot. Whether that spot is the 6 jersey, a lock spot or a bench seat, the two “M’s” seem destined to fight it out with each other. Interestingly, when they have started in a test together, it’s been kiwi-born Mumm at 6 with McMeniman at lock. In fact Mumm has only started the one test at lock, against France in Brisbane, and he was pretty bloody impressive.
Will Caldwell (NSW): Is he ready for test footy? Well he plays test rugby type footy in the Super 14s. Not that he plays at a level above everyone else, he just plays a no-fuss, hard nosed, minimal mistakes style of play that would stand him in good stead should he make the step up. Now the Waratahs most capped ever lock (something I still find astounding) he has the runs on the board, to not be overawed by any surprise test selection.
Van Humphreys (QLD): The 33 year old lock is known as Benjamin Button in the Reds camp, for his seemingly reverse ageing capabilities. He’s been around for ages, but his form has never been better. Starting in the now defunct ARC, and continued through to last season with the Reds and now an injury hampered 2009, Humphreys has proven to be an important element of the Reds pack. He does a pile of work at the rucks, leads the lineout and is surprisingly handy ball in hand. It would be a major surprise if he was picked, but a welcome reward for many years of hard toil.
Ben Hand (ACT): A bit of a surprise packet this year for the Brumbies. Many suggested his signing from Japan, ostensibly replacing Al Campbell, was simply replacing like with like. However Hand has been one of the few consistent forward leaders at the Brumbies. Smith and Moore, sure, but Hand has been right beside them in terms of on-field productivity, but without the media attention.
Tom Hockings (WA): Hockings is still nowhere near is 2008 rookie year form. If he does manage to reclaim it, then he’s every chance of a Wallaby jersey sometime in 2009, or beyond. A two metre giant he has a physical presence on the playing field that belies his comparative youth. Doesn’t have much time to push for selection, particularly with no Australia A program. Might snag an extended training squad spot as an experience giving tool.
Peter Kimlin (ACT): Kind of fits the McMeniman and Mumm model of where is he best suited. To me he plays a real Matt Cockbain type of role, which could come in handy because I think Cockbain’s aggression at the breakdown and tackle has been sorely missed by the Wallabies since his retirement. Still mixing his time between lock and blindside for the Brumbies, although it would seem that lock may be where he ends up.
What is Deans looking for?
I would suggest what the Wallaby selectors will be looking for in all tight forward positions is players who can impose themselves on a game. For a lock that needs to be primarily in the lineout and from the kick off, but also at the tackle, clearing out and muscling up. Then of course it’s about being a part of a solid, preferably dominant, scrum. The additional stuff such as the ability to throw a cut out pass and run like a centre are just nice add ons. Again, depending on the balance of the back row, some sort of running game is also advantageous for one of the locks, but it must come secondary to their primary play.
Who is the answer?
James Horwill looks the type of forward that Australia can build a dominant pack around. I would suggest he’ll be picked regardless, but he can really secure his position for the season with continued form improvements. Is there a stir in the air that his locking partner will not necessarily be Nathan Sharpe? I would’ve suggested that the spot was his, however Deans recent comments about ‘slate being clean, regardless of reputation’ seems to be a little less coach rhetoric than normal. If it was decided it was time to move on then the beneficiaries are likely to be either McMeniman or Mumm, with Mumm being my choice. Kimlin and Caldwell perhaps to be considered as well.