Eyeing a spot ... Waratahs recruit Israel Folau in training with his teammates at Moore Park on Tuesday. Photo: Anthony Johnson
IT MAY be a ploy to put the wind up his established players but new Waratahs coach Michael Cheika says all 15 starting positions are up for grabs with the start of the Super Rugby season looming.
The Waratahs play their first pre-season match against the Melbourne Rebels next Saturday in Tasmania and, while the players returning from international camp are likely to be rested, Cheika said the race for positions was wide open.
''I'd say all of them [are open], it's a clean slate,'' he said. ''Obviously some guys are coming back from Wallaby representation in the spring series overseas. They have credit so they're in the box seat. Players who've been here now for three months of the pre-season will be ready to take their opportunity when it comes, whether it's the first game in Hobart against the Rebels or the second game.''
Former rugby league and AFL star Israel Folau is likely to play on the wings or at fullback for the Waratahs and will not be deployed in the centres. Cheika confirmed Folau was being trained to play deep in the back line but he is yet to undergo extensive work on his kicking game.
''He'll be playing in the backs somewhere. That's where he'll be doing all his training and we're very happy with the way he's progressing,'' Cheika said. ''You're kicking with a lot more pressure in rugby. To be honest, we haven't really focused too much on kicking at this stage and we've really put a lot towards our attacking game and I think that's something we can work on. I think the core theme of what we want to do is play attacking football.''
The returning international players will be given an option to play in the second warm-up match, against the Blues in Whangarei on February 9. Cheika hinted his attention will be more on those vying for contracts.
''The first trial will be taken up by all the guys who've been working since the first day of pre-season, so the guys who are returning won't be playing in that first game against Melbourne. The second trial will have some guys from the Wallabies looking to get some game time,'' Cheika said. ''But for many of the guys who are club players or guys playing for possible contracts, it's going to be some big matches.''
The arrival of a new coach has created a competitive atmosphere on the training ground and Cheika said he had been surprised by the quality of the younger players fighting for deals.
''I've been impressed by several players who perhaps I haven't heard much about before and I've seen some young players who look pretty interesting to me and also some club players who perhaps haven't had the recognition of a contract, but do not look out of place running with professional players,'' he said.