Darren Coleman says the simple fact there are no restrictions about the Wallabies’ return to play in Super Rugby this year has allowed him to hit the ground running by naming a string of Test stars in his run-on side to take on the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday.
Usually the first week of Super Rugby trials is reserved for giving the next generation of players a proper hit-out before the big guns return a week later.
But the Wallabies’ early exit at last year’s World Cup meant for the first time Australia’s premier players returned before Christmas to join their Super Rugby teammates.
Their early return has led to Coleman rolling out a Test front-row to start against the Rebels, with Angus Bell, Dave Porecki and Harry Johnson-Holmes.
“The main reason the boys are playing the first trial is because they’re allowed to this year,” Coleman said.
“Last year the Wallabies season stretched into November and they weren’t allowed to play two trials. This year’s there’s no restrictions.
“Our goal is to give most of those blokes half a game this week and then build that for trial two, so you’d like to think by round one there won’t be any cobwebs and we’ll be close to our best.”
The Test trio are joined by Wallabies Jed Holloway and back-rowers Lachie Swinton and Langi Gleeson, who is in “career-best shape” and a “different animal”, according to Coleman.
In the absence of reinstated captain Jake Gordon, former Junior Wallabies skipper Teddy Wilson gets the chance to push his case alongside Tane Edmed.
It’s an exciting midfield pair, with Lalakai Foketi joined by his Wallabies teammate Izaia Perese.
The settled midfield pair is in stark contrast to the outside backs, with Joey Walton adding another string to his bow by starting at fullback alongside the returning Triston Reilly and new recruit Vuate Karawalevu.
Coleman’s bench is headlined by the arrival of Miles Amatosero, with the second-rower returning to Australia after being developed at Clermont.
Unlike Coleman’s public declaration of wanting to be the “Chicago Bulls” of rugby, the affable coach has presided over an understated squad who are weary of putting too much pressure on themselves after a stop-start season, which saw the Waratahs limp into sixth spot before crashing out in the quarter-finals.
“We’ve got to improve. We’ve got sixth two years in a row – we need to improve,” he said.
Improve the Waratahs must too, with Coleman in the last season of his three-year deal.
Asked about his future, Coleman said he was aware the pressure was on to stay at Daceyville in his dream job.
“I love the job here, of course you’d like to stay on,” said Coleman, whose role has extended to taking on the general manager responsibilities following the departure of World Cup-winner and experienced coach Andrew Blades.
“If the people above, and the playing group, decide that I’m not the guy to take them forward, they’ll do that. And I’ll leave here happy that I did my best.
“I love this place. Whatever the role is, or how it all works, I’d love to stay here at the Tahs and keep building on it. I think we’re on something special.
“I think we’ve got a really good roster. If you look at our roster now compared to say 21 when [I] took over, we’re in a much healthier state with depth and quality of players, more Wallabies and more aspiring Wallabies, so I’d like to be around as we sort of send it into a good era.”
The Waratahs are expected to take on a near full-strength Rebels side, who have been rocked over the past two months about the future of the club.
Coleman said he sympathised with the Rebels, who went into voluntary administration on Monday.
“It’s sad to read all of that,” he said.
“There’s a lot of really good people down there that are working hard for the sport.
“I reckon they’d prefer to make a statement once there’s points on the line.
“I definitely feel for them, everyone feels for them. They’re good footy blokes. When you’ve got good men, their employment and things they’ve put a lot of passion and time into, and I know Kevin [Foote], the head coach, he’s an awesome man. And a lot of the players are mates with our players.
“No one likes seeing what’s going on down there, and hopefully they can get a good resolution.”
The Rebels have Wallabies forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the second-row alongside young gun Josh Canham, while Test playmaker Carter Gordon and fullback Andrew Kellaway have have been named too.
Taniela Tupou, meanwhile, will pull on the Rebels jersey for the first time after making the move south from Queensland.
Melbourne Rebels vs. NSW Waratahs – 4pm AEDT – Moorabbin Rugby Club, Melbourne
Rebels: (1-15) Matt Gibbon, Jordan Uelese, Sam Talakai, Josh Canham, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Josh Kemeny, Brad Wilkin, Vaiolini Ekusai, James Tuttle, Carter Gordon, Glen Vaihu, David Feliuai, Matt Proctor, Filipo Daugunu, Andrew Kellaway
Replacements: Ethan Dobbins, Isaac Kailea, Taniela Tupou, Angelo Smith, Tuaina Taii Tualima, Jack Maunder, Jake Strachan, Lukas Ripley, Mason Gordon, David Vaihu, Darby Lancaster, Daniel Maiaa, Timma Faingaanuku, Rob Leota, Kohan Herbert, Nick Jooste
Waratahs (1-15): Angus Bell, David Porecki, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Jed Holloway, Hugh Sinclair, Lachie Swinton, Ned Slack-Smith, Langi Gleeson, Teddy Wilson, Tane Edmed, Triston Reilly, Lalakai Foketi, Izaia Perese, Vuate Karawalevu, Joey Walton
Replacements: Theo Fourie, Hayden Thompson-Stringer, Daniel Botha, Miles Amatosero, Charlie Gamble, Ben Di Staso, Tom Goddard, Jack Bowen, Mosese Tuipulotu, Harry Wilson, Archie Saunders, Matt Komolafe, Sam Thomson
QLD Reds vs. Western Force – 3.10pm AEST – Ballymore Stadium, Brisbane
The Queensland Reds have lost James O’Connor to a hamstring injury, with Lawson Creighton to wear the No.10 jersey against the Western Force.
Creighton, who has struggled to cement a position since joining the squad, will partner co-captain Tate McDermott.
The injury is a blow for O’Connor, with the No.10 jersey a four-way race with incumbent Tom Lynagh and Harry McLaughlin-Phillips also pushing hard for the jersey. Lynagh is expected to be fit for the Reds’ second trial.
Nonetheless, Les Kiss has named a strong side with most of his Wallabies back, including hooker Matt Faessler and tight-head prop Zane Nonggorr.
It’s an all Test back-row, with Liam Wright selected alongside Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson.
There’s a healthy balance of pace and power in the back five, with Hunter Paisami named alongside Josh Flook in the centres while Suliasi Vunivalu starts alongside fullback Jordan Petaia.
The Force will name their squad on Friday.
Reds (1-15): Sef Fa’agase, Matt Faessler, Zane Nonggorr, Seru Uru, Cormac Daly, Liam Wright (co-c), Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson, Tate McDermott (co-c), Lawson Creighton, Floyd Aubrey, Hunter Paisami, Josh Flook, Suliasi Vunivalu, Jordan Petaia
Reserves: George Blake, Alex Hodgman, Peni Ravai, Connor Vest, Taine Roiri, Kalani Thomas, Isaac Henry, Mac Grealy, Bagiuo Johnson-Tiumalu, Joe Brial, John Bryant, Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, Moli Sooaemalagi, Charlie Brosnan, Louis Werchon, Tim Ryan, Willem Johnstone, Frankie Goldsbrough, Jarrod Homan, Jock Campbell