Wallabies' chance for evolution in Pocock's continued absence

The names included in Michael Cheika's first official Wallabies squad of 2019 will hardly strike fear into the Rugby World Cup contenders, but it at least affords Australia an opportunity to evolve.

The big-name omission from a 34-man squad to contest the Rugby Championship, starting with a Test against South Africa in Johannesburg in a fortnight's time, was David Pocock.

The two-time John Eales medallist's return from a calf injury is not yet known, and the veteran No. 7's omission from the squad hardly instils confidence that he will line up for the Wallabies' tournament opener against Fiji on September 21.

Cheika said he was 'positive about having him back at some stage during the Championship," but that only follows the same narrative the Brumbies were running out each week before Pocock eventually announced his Super Rugby retirement.

But the situation is not all doom and gloom, either. Pocock's continued absence removes the temptation for Cheika to persist with playing the world's premier breakdown disruptor alongside skipper Michael Hooper.

The Wallabies coach can now instead take a look at a more traditional back-row setup that doesn't adversely affect Australia's lineout and provides a more complete set of ball-carriers.

Pete Samu's injury in the Brumbies' quarterfinal victory over the Sharks was unfortunate, given he was at last playing the kind of rugby that prompted Cheika to entice him home from the Crusaders in the first place.

Samu would have surely been at the top of the list to start at No. 6 against the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld, but Cheika's selection of another Brumbies back-rower provides a clue as to whom may line up on the blindside in South Africa.

Like Pocock, Rob Valetini has endured a tough two years with injury. But Valetini did return for the closing weeks of Super Rugby, starting at No. 6 in the Brumbies' final four games of the season. The Waratahs back-rower made quite the impression at the end of 2017 Rugby Championship and a rare Bledisloe Cup win in Brisbane, only to tear his hamstring from the bone in a virtual exhibition match against Alan Jones' Barbarians in Sydney.

That injury saw him miss the entirety of the 2018 Super Rugby season while he was kept to just nine game this year due to a back injury.

The other options at No. 6 include Jack Dempsey and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Dempsey offers a slightly more mobile option to Valetini and footwork at the line, rather than the raw power that the Brumbies youngster possesses.

And then there is Lukhan Salakaia-Loto whom Cheika has used previously in the back-row and a player who switched between No. 6 and lock for Queensland Reds this season. In an interview with ESPN, Salakaia-Loto said he preferred playing No. 6; a slimmed down frame from 2018 has certainly improved his mobility and seemingly not affected his ability to bend the defensive line.

Just what direction Cheika heads from those three options could depend on whom impresses during training prior to the Test in South Africa but given the likely size of the Springboks pack, it may be that Salakaia-Loto or Valetini hold the upper hand. That is, of course, if Cheika chooses to fight fire with fire.

The selection at No. 8 against the Springboks should hold few surprises, though, with Isi Naisarani now officially eligible for Australia. Fijian-born Naisarani has been one of the premier ball-carriers in Super Rugby for the past two years and a player whom the Wallabies have been counting down the days to make his debut.

A big problem for Australia over the past few years, last season in particular, was an inability to create any real momentum through the middle of the paddock. Naisarani will be charged with doing just that and with support from either Valetini or Salakaia-Loto, of the slightly different approach Dempsey provides, Australia might finally have more space to work in further out.

It could also fail, leaving Cheika with the easier scenario of sticking with his Pocock-Hooper combination to which the Wallabies coach has nailed his colours to the mast previously. The creation of a three-man selection panel also rules reduces the likelihood of autocratic decision-making.

But it was also at this point four years ago when the Hooper-Pocock combination was first blooded at Test level, and laid the platform for what would be a memorable run to the World Cup final a couple of months later.

With Pocock sidelined, a new combination will be blooded once more. Bolstered by Naisarani's impending debut, the champion back-rower's absence may just be the inconvenience Australia needs to start a similar journey, but one that also results in an uncomfortable discussion around whom will captain the Wallabies in Japan if Pocock is at last free from injury.