Problems just seem to keep mounting up for Michael Cheika, but the latest headache for Australia’s rugby union head coach is an issue off the field that could have a major impact on it.
Wallabies fullback Israel Folau has seriously jeopardised and looks to have ended his international future by again making controversial comments on social media.
Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Rugby Union, the governing bodies which employ Waratahs back Folau, are set to sack him as a result.
Folau, 30, has 73 caps for the Wallabies and scored 37 tries in his international career, but Cheika needs to find a new fullback. The latest rugby union betting on the World Cup in Japan later this year, meanwhile, has Australia out to 14/1 to win the tournament.
Who could replace Folau then? Well, the answer by and large looks to be with Cheika placing faith in youth.
Melbourne Rebels fullback Jack Maddocks has enjoyed a fine start to the Super Rugby campaign and is among the leading Australian try scorers in the competition.
The 22-year-old is obviously short on experience but has huge potential and been earmarked for big things. Cheika selected Maddocks for the end-of-year European Tour as a development player in 2017.
Since then he’s earned six caps for the Wallabies, scoring a debut try off the replacements bench against neighbours New Zealand in the 2018 Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship opener.
Maddocks is yet to establish himself as first-choice at international level, but if he continues to perform in Super Rugby, he could force his way into the XV.
Competing with Maddocks for both club and country is Dane Haylett-Petty, an established part of the Wallabies setup. The 29-year-old has started seven of Australia’s last nine Tests at fullback and that suggests his experience is what Cheika may turn to come the World Cup.
Haylett-Petty just isn’t a prolific tryscorer at international level though, and that is the one negative. His record pales in comparison to Folau, who he has done his best to deputise for in the past.
While he might be the safe option, Haylett-Petty lacks the potential of other candidates for the 15 jersey. It’s hard to see how he can improve further and he might actually block Maddocks development at the Rebels and with the national team.
Also on the fringes is Brumbies back Tom Banks. All four of his international starts last year came as a replacement, so the 24-year-old is still waiting to make a full debut for the Wallabies.
After establishing himself as the first-choice fullback with Brumbies last year, Banks is expected to stake his claims for a spot on the plane to Japan. As with Maddocks, he is short on experience but possesses tons of potential.
Cheika clearly sees plenty of promise with Banks and, with the fullback berth now up for grabs, may give him a proper audition to show what he can do. Brumbies could also be represented in the Australia squad by impressive hooker Folau Fainga’a.