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Projected Starters Series: Australia

Projected Starters Series: Australia

Australia huddle after the final whistle of the match

Following a topsy turvy Rugby Championship, Australia are heading into the Autumn Nations Series looking to finish the calendar year strongly.

On the way to a third-place finish in the Rugby Championship the Wallabies recorded comfortable wins over Argentina and world champions South Africa and came within seconds of defeating New Zealand in Melbourne before the controversial time-wasting incident at the end. In the end though, they managed two wins from six overall and also failed to win back the Bledisloe Cup which remains in the All Blacks’ possession for a third decade.

That came after a 2-1 series defeat to England, which saw Dave Rennie finally oversee a Wallaby victory over Eddie Jones – and a first win against the Red Rose since the 2015 Rugby World Cup – but lose the series overall as the visitors came from one down to win the second and third Tests.

So after a summer of ups and downs for Rennie and his Wallabies squad, the Autumn Nations Series represents a key chance to establish some consistency.

Scotland, France, Italy, Ireland and Wales await Australia this autumn and in five difficult matches against the best of the northern hemisphere, we look at what the Wallabies starting XV could look like.

Front Row 

The Wallaby front row is one that is fairly well set, finally fixing what was for a long time a problem position following the retirement of long-time hooker and captain Stephen Moore and experienced tighthead Sekope Kepu.

In the mould of Scott Sio and James Slipper they have front row experience similar to that of Moore and Kepu, while Folau Fainga’a and Allan Alaalatoa provide significant power from hooker and tighthead prop respectively.

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Slipper captained the Wallabies in the absence of Michael Hooper in the Rugby Championship, with Exeter Chiefs-bound Sio coming off the bench.

In reality that is likely to stay that way, with Slipper, who is the third most capped Australian of all time with 123 Test caps, in pole position to start and Sio, who himself has 80 caps, battling with rising star Angus Bell for a spot on the bench.

James Slipper during the warm-up

Dave Porecki and Folau Fainga’a will battle it out for the starting hooker berth, with both having chances to play and start this year – suggesting there will be rotation.

Allan Alaalatoa has all but made the No.3 jersey his own with a set of commanding displays throughout the summer, while Taniela Tupou came off the replacements bench throughout the summer, starting in two of the three Tests against England while Alaalatoa was out before dealing with injury issues of his own. Pone Fa’amausili got his chance this year and looks to have a long-term future in the tighthead shake-up.

Second Row 

Another area in which Australia have been lacking consistency ever since Rob Simmons’ departure is the second row.

No fewer than six second rows were given game time in the Rugby Championship, with Rennie trying to nail down a starting pair ahead of the Rugby World Cup next year.

In Matt Philip and Rory Arnold, he appears to have found that, with the duo starting in four and three of the Rugby Championship matches respectively.

Nick Frost was used as a replacement on three occasions, with Darcy Swain starting twice and coming on as a replacement three times – but his discipline could be regarded as a problem by Rennie, after being red carded against England and then retrospectively banned after his shoulder to knee incident which has ruled Quinn Tupaea out for the rest of the season.

Both Cadyrn Neville and the versatile Jed Holloway featured too, although they appear to be further down the pecking order. There is also the possibility that La Rochelle’s Will Skelton comes back into the equation this autumn, depending on how Rennie plans to use his overseas-based selections.

Back Row 

Australia’s back row is all built around captain Michael Hooper, who missed a significant period of Wallabies matches for the first time in the Rugby Championship due to mental health reasons.

There have been reports that he could be back into the fold for the Autumn Nations Series, and if that is the case he is an absolute shoe in to start at openside flanker although it appears that Slipper would keep the captaincy.

Michael Hooper

Pete Samu and Fraser McReight both deputised for Hooper in the Rugby Championship and will likely both be involved following strong showings, the former, in particular taking a giant leap.

Hooper is almost certain to be joined by Rob Leota, who has taken the number six jersey by the scruff of the neck and Rob Valetini, whose carrying ability is significant for the Wallabies to get go forward ball. Harry Wilson came back in the final game against the All Blacks and offers an alternative at No.8

Half-backs 

At half-back it has been difficult to see what Australia’s first choice pair would be due to the serious injuries sustained by key fly-half selections.

Four different fly-halves started for the Wallabies during the Rugby Championship, with a different fly-half starting in each of the first three matches of the tournament.

With that it becomes increasingly difficult to build momentum in the backs, although a positive spin would be that Rennie has several options at his disposal ahead of the World Cup.

Quade Cooper seemed destined to regain control of the jersey and make it his own again after a significant time away but suffered a calf injury which ruled him out of the summer series against England before tearing his Achilles seven minutes into the second half in the win against Argentina.

James O’Connor was then given a chance in the second match against the Pumas, but his performance saw him dropped and not included again as the Wallabies fell to a 48-17 defeat.

Noah Lolesio then took the reins for the win and loss to South Africa, but he too was out for the fifth and sixth Tests.

Australia's Bernard Foley scores a try as EnglandÕs Chris Robshaw tries to tackle

So, Rennie turned to Bernard Foley, 33 years old and three years since his last international involvement, and it was almost the perfect return, before the controversial time-wasting incident saw New Zealand edge the Wallabies 39-37 in a classic.

Foley started the following week, and it seems as though he may be given the chance to continue, with Lolesio also likely to be involved.,

Scrum-half is more settled, with Nic White, Jake Gordon and Tate McDermott set to battle it out for the starting spot.

White seems likely to be the starting option, but Rennie has rotated him plenty with Gordon, suggesting they are going to continue to battle out for who wears the nine jersey. There is also the wildcard of former All Black scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who qualifies for Australia and expressed his interest in playing for the Wallabies, but that seems a long shot at this point.

Centres 

With so much uncertainty at fly-half, Rennie will be pleased that his centre pairing is settled.

Hunter Paisami and Len Ikitau have proven to be a more than capable duo in the centres and it seems that barring injury they will be starting against Scotland on October 29.

Lalakai Foketi started against New Zealand on both occasions but suffered a shoulder injury that Rennie admitted would almost certainly rule him out of the trip to Europe.

Jordan Petaia is another who could get involved in the centres if needs be, although his flexibility there could see him selected as a replacement while Reece Hodge could also be deployed in the centres but could play elsewhere.

Back Three 

Another area Australia have had significant disruption in is in the back three, with injuries to several of their players throughout the summer making selection nigh on impossible.

Tom Banks suffered a horrific broken arm in the first Test against England, which saw Petaia start there before his concussion ruled him out of the third Test.

Fortunately for Rennie, Australia are blessed with a lot of talent in the back three, and Tom Wright, Andrew Kellaway and Marika Koroibete appear to have formed a balanced back three for Australia despite the long injury list.

Kellaway and Wright are able to play both at full-back and on the wing, while Koroibete provides power, speed genuine X factor.

Petaia has also featured both on the wing and at full-back, while Reece Hodge can cover all three positions.

Potential Australia team for Autumn Nations Series 

15 Andrew Kellaway

14 Tom Wright

13 Len Ikitau

12 Hunter Paisami

11 Marika Koroibete

10 Bernard Foley

9 Nic White

1 James Slipper

2 Dave Porecki

3 Allan Alaalatoa

4 Rory Arnold

5 Matt Philip

6 Rob Leota

7 Michael Hooper (C)

8 Rob Valetini

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