Waratahs head coach ... Michael Cheika. Photo: Getty Images
WARATAHS coach Michael Cheika has a selection battle on his hands as he prepares to welcome back the Wallabies to his roster for a squad that impressed during Saturday's trial against Melbourne - none more so than Israel Folau.
So tight is the selection race that Cheika, speaking after he returned to Sydney from Hobart on Sunday, added that while Folau made a great debut for NSW as the starting fullback, the No.15 jersey was by no means ''his to lose''.
Cheika has an abundance of options on the wings and at fullback. And based on Saturday's game, he said Folau was not the only non-Wallaby who would challenge Test veterans such as Lachlan Turner, Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper for the versatile role.
Cheika said Folau, Cam Crawford, Tom Kingston and Peter Betham all did their selection hopes a power of good in Hobart.
And with strong centre options in Tom Carter, Rob Horne, Ashley-Cooper and Berrick Barnes (neither of who played on Saturday), Cheika said the solid showing in the centres of Elijah Niko, one of 10 non-contracted club players given a chance to impress, tightened the selection race.
''It's going to hot up … it is starting to squeeze up already,'' Cheika said, looking ahead to the Waratahs' next trial, against the Blues in Whangarei in New Zealand. ''And we still have Berrick and Ashley-Cooper to come back the week after [for NSW's third trial, against the Crusaders.]''
Cheika also reiterated that he would not be swayed by reputation. Asked if there was a chance some Wallabies would end up on the bench, he said: ''Possibly.'' He also confirmed that several of the 10 club players he took to Hobart ''have earned the spot to go again'' and play in the Waratahs' second trial.
Besides Niko (Easts), Cheika lauded several other club players for making the best of their chances to play after pre-season training with NSW. Top of the list was back-rower A.J. Gilbert (Norths), the man of the match who, Cheika said, ''pretty much booked himself a berth'' for Saturday's game. He also gave a thumbs-up to second-rower Will Skelton (Sydney University) and props Richard Aho (Randwick) and Mike Alaalatoa (Southern Districts).
Cheika said there were ''a lot of them who made good impacts, made good touches. They didn't look like they were out of place against the Rebels.''
Cheika was also able to elaborate on Folau's debut and place some reality around the excitement of his game in which he scored two tries, set up one try for Crawford that he could easily have scored himself, and was positionally on his game at fullback and on the wing. The only hiccup was his yellow-carding at the 53rd minute for a breakdown infringement, but that was regarded by many as a curious and harsh call.
Asked if Folau had played well enough to secure the No.15 jersey, Cheika said: ''I wouldn't say so. It's far too early to be saying statements like that. We have guys like Cam Crawford … Turner, Mitchell, Ashley-Cooper. So we have a lot of confident fullbacks. So it is definitely not Israel's to lose.''
Cheika also said he wanted Folau to play his natural running game, which suits the style the Waratahs want to play this season and indicated they were intent of unleashing with their counter-attacks from deep inside their half in their four-try-to-two win again the Rebels.
Asked if Folau's lack of kicking was deliberate, Cheika said: ''We are trying to counter [attack] if we can and play some ball with some width. And where possible we showed that. Maybe we could have kicked it a couple of times when we ran. Maybe we probably could have run a couple of times when we kicked. His natural instinct is to run when he gets the ball in hand.''