Wallabies back-row David Pocock expects his combination with Michael Hooper will always be a subject of debate but whether they’re deployed at a second World Cup is a matter for the coaches to weigh up.
Hooper and Pocock are regularly among the Wallabies’ best in the Tests they play but their deployment as starters in the Australian team comes at the expense of a fourth lineout option.
It’s a trade-off the Wallabies have been all too happy to make given the immense value both players bring to the team, and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has picked the pair to start in every Test for which they have both been available since the 2015 Rugby World Cup began.
The struggles of the Wallabies lineout this year, and the fact end-of-year tour development player Isi Naisarani will be eligible at number eight next year, has seen questions raised about whether the “Pooper” combination will continue to be used through to the 2019 World Cup.
Pocock admitted the lack of height at lineout time would always be a discussion point as long as the dual openside combination continued, but it was up to the Wallabies coaches to weigh up that balance.
“That’s always going to be talked about and that’s up to the coaches in terms of the profile that they’re looking for, what they think the benefits as opposed to the costs of having two shorter players in the back row,” he told Rugby Australia’s official website.
“I love playing alongside Hoops but I don’t know (if it will remain through the World Cup), that’s up to the coaches and what profile they think’s going to be best for us as a team.
“I’ll stay out of that one. I really rate Mike as a person, as a captain, as a player and I love playing alongside him.
“We’ve worked hard at trying to get that combination working as best we can.”
In reality, it’s hard to picture either Hooper – the captain – or recently crowned John Eales medallist Pocock left out of the side, so as with the last three years the task will be maximising the effectiveness of the three recognised jumpers and getting occasional wins from the number seven and number eight.
Hooker Folau Fainga’a said the current lineup didn’t worry the throwers as far as targets go.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” he said.
“He’s got strong lifters behind him and around him to get him up to the same height that you’ll get your Rory Arnolds and the rest of the tall blokes there.
“For us, it’s just no matter who jumps, you’ve just got to hit the target.”
The Wallabies’ back-row department shapes as having decent depth in the Rugby World Cup year, even with players like Sean McMahon plying their trade overseas.
Pete Samu has added class and along with Ned Hanigan, Lukhan Tui will be back from personal leave next year.
Australia’s two tour development players Rob Valetini and Naisarani are also well regarded number eights, giving the Wallabies new options in that area, too.
“I think it’s both of their first times to the UK, so they’re pretty excited and you get to see their raw talent and the rugby players they can and hopefully will be in the future,” Pocock said of the development pair.
“It’s very exciting for them I’m sure but as an older player watching them, it takes you back a bit and I’m very excited to see what they can do.”
Naisarani becomes eligible in April next year after moving to Australia from Fiji and could be seriously considered for a World Cup berth, a prospect that excites plenty.
While Pocock stopped short of endorsing Naisarani’s World Cup credentials, the 29-year-old had plenty of praise for his former Brumbies team-mate.
“I guess the selection stuff is up to Cheik,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen, this year at the Brumbies he’s someone who doesn’t get too flustered about many things in life and takes things in his stride so I’m sure he’ll be able to step up.
“He’s a pretty handy player.
“We saw with the Brumbies how damaging he could be out in the wider channels.
“He’s got the classic Radike Samo ability to play the ball in one hand, get the offload away and can also be pretty damaging in defence.
“So, (it’s) very exciting as far as next year. A lot of it depends on his season with the Rebels and the growth he shows there but I’m excited for him.”
While the Wallabies mull back-row formations, Wales’s changing of the guard is already well underway with the retirement of long-time skipper Sam Warburton.
Justin Tipuric regularly partnered with Warburton in the Welsh back-row and Pocock said the threat would be just as great regardless of Warburton’s retirement.
“I rate him (Tipuric), he gets through a lot of work, his timing’s really good so the way the game’s played these days at the breakdown is such a big part of it,” he said.
“In attack, you’re trying to get quick ball and get into your dangerous attacking players’ hands and in defence, you’re looking to either turn it over or slow it down and you see teams like New Zealand and how good they are at attacking the breakdown and slowing it down.”