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Wallabies coach Dave Rennie explains the selection decisions after naming 35-man squad to face England in July three Test rugby series

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has revealed the thinking behind the make up of his 35-man squad for the series against England, including some major injury news, his plans for Suli Vunivalu and the decision to drop a Test stalwart.

Rennie said there were plenty of tight decisions as Reds’ flanker Fraser McReight and Rebels Mr Fixit Reece Hodge missed out and will feature for the Australia A team instead.

“We spent a lot of time looking at the squad and balance,” Rennie told reporters on Sunday. “There were some tight decisions and some disappointed guys.

“That’s a reflection on the depth in the squad now, we’re certainly getting competition for places.

“For some of those guys there’s an Australian A program to push their case.”

Here’s everything Rennie had to say about the announcement

On McReight missing out

“Fraser, our thinking around him, is we’re unlikely to have a specialist No.7 on the bench when you’ve got someone like a Pete Samu who can give you more cover,” said Rennie.

“If Hoops was to go down we know we could bring Fraser back. Him playing week in week out in the Pacific Nations will be good for him. That’s the thinking there.

“Likewise, with a few other guys they’re going to get their chance to push their case.”

Fraser McReight of the Wallabies takes the ball up during the first Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Australian Wallabies at Eden Park on August 07, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Fraser McReight. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

On Izack Rodda’s prognosis

It is only nine days since Rodda gave an upbeat assessment of his foot injury, saying he was suffering from foot bruising and would be right to play against England.

Rennie delivered a surprise update on Sunday.

“It’s worse [than thought]. He could be out for as much as three months,” Rennie said. “It’s so disappointing for him. We’ve got a clear plan around rehab and we’ll get him back as quick as we can.”

On if he was tempted to bring back Rory Arnold or Will Skelton with Rodda out

Rennie is allowed three overseas based players for each series and he opted for the Japan-based trio of Marika Koroibete, Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi.

Asked if he might have opted for France-based Skelton or Arnold, Rennie replied: “The issue with the French guys is they played quarterfinals overnight. It’s easier to leave those guys out of the England series and have a look at it post that.”

On his plans for NRL convert Suliasi Vunivalu

While Rennie might have sent the former Melbourne Storm star for more game time in the Pacific Nations series, Rennie was keen to keep him around. It appears that might be more for his development than as a member of the match day 23.

Vunivalu missed Rennie’s 40 man squad earlier this year because of hamstring injuries and it was reported he was considering a return to rugby league if not capped.

“It’s not so much about capping Suli,” said Rennie.

Suliasi Vunivalu at Wallabies training

Suliasi Vunivalu. (Image: Supplied/Rugby Australia/Andrew Phan)

“We’ve picked him because he has massive potential. We think we can accelerate his development within the camp rather than leaving him outside of that. He’s had his troubles with injury, we’ve seen glimpses of real quality and we’re just keen to get our hands on him and accelerate that.

“We’re going to have 14 Tests this year so there’s a lot of footy to be played. We genuinely believe he’s good enough to play at that level. That’s the decision we made – have him in the group and have our eye on him day after day.”

On the decision to leave out Reece Hodge

Hodge had a poor start to the Super Rugby season and misses out despite his backline versatility.

“It’s tough on Hodgey because he’s such a good man,” said Rennie.

“He’s as professional as you get, a guy who even regardless of how he plays for the Rebels, he puts on a Wallabies jersey and always fronts, regardless of what position you play him.

“He had a pretty scratchy start to the season. His form’s been mixed, we know what he brings. He’ll get a chance to go into the A program and get a bit more footy under the belt and put the pressure on. He covers so many spots that he’s likely to force his way in at some stage in some position.”

On if Kurtley Beale was a chance of featuring

Beale is due back from France and will play for the Waratahs next season but injury has cost him the chance of playing against England.

“Kurtley had a serious hamstring injury that kept him out for a couple of months and coming back tweaked it,” said Rennie.

“The plan will be when he comes home he won’t be in either of those programs it will be around rehabbing him and trying to get the body right so he’s an option beyond the England series.”

On the battle between Quade Cooper and James O’Connor for the No.10 jersey

Rennie said he had a starting 23 in mind but was coy on who might start at 10.

“We’ll play it as we see it,” said Rennie. “James, had the Reds been in the semis, he would have played, so he’s ready to go.

“We had him in Sydney for a couple of days last week training and he looks really good. Noah [Lolesio] has been playing some good footy in a side that’s been going really well so there’s competition for places and we’ll make those decisions.”

On if it’s the most significant series of his tenure

“I would say so,” said Rennie. “The French series was fantastic for us last year but we’re a lot more experience now. We’ve got a lot of boys who have a lot more Tests under their belt and I think we’ve added a little bit of steel to the group as well.

“It’s a big series, we know that we’re excited about it but we’ve got a great year beyond this. We play all the best sides in the world, 14 really strong Tests against tier one nations, it’s great prep heading into next year.

“We’re trying to win tests along the way that’s our focus. But we’ve done a fair bit of World Cup planning as well as planning for this season, while there are details often around the logistical stuff it’s also about the group we think we’ll need and the flexibility of positions because we’ll pick a couple less for the World Cup.”

On the matchday 23

Rennie confirmed that Len Ikitau would be available for selection in the first Test with the final game of his ban to be “served” via club rugby.

“We’ve talked about a starting group a lot,” Rennie said. “We’ve got a reasonably good idea of the 23 that will play in the first Test and there’s a couple of injury question marks we need to sort out and some of those will have a knock-on effect in other spots. We’re reasonably clear.

“Obviously it was great to see Bobby [Valetini] play 40 minutes for the Brumbies last night. It gives us confidence that he’s ready to go. Guys like James O’Connor and Izaia Perese would have been available this weekend. [Taniela Tupou] is going to be a lot tighter to the start line and we’ll see how it goes.

“Harry Johnson-Holmes will join us on Thursday and train with us but we want him to go away with the As and play and the thinking was if Nela is no good we’ll still push Harry into the A program knowing we can bring him back if we need him.”

On Scott Sio, who has left the Brumbies but is yet to announce his next move, Rennie said: “His future’s with us at the moment, he’s been very good. Credit to him, he found his mojo, he’s carried really well. He’s in a position where he’s going to keep pushing for a spot and we’ll see what happens then.”

On the Wallabies’ point of difference

“We’re going to have a really good scrum and we want that to be a point of difference in this series,” Rennie said, adding it was the best squad he had mustered during his time as Wallabies coach.

“From a lineout perspective and maul we know that’s going to be huge. They’re going to put a lot of ball up in the air. We’ve spent so much time studying them, we know what’s coming. Our challenge is to be good enough to deal with that and apply pressure ourselves.”

On the inclusions of Jed Holloway and Dave Porecki

The Waratahs forwards are both in line for Test debuts in the series and Rennie said he was impressed by their “excellent” Super Rugby campaigns.

“Jed is a big man, excellent skill set, and a good athlete,” Rennie said. “His ability to break the line, create space for others. First four weeks he spent a fair bit of time on the ground, gave him a call and pointed that out and from that week on he was in the 90s in his ability to get back on his feet and get back in the game.

“He’s been excellent. We think he’s more a 6-8 but as we’ve seen he’s played lock all year and he’s been a great for them, dominated their line out ball.

“They’ve both taken the long journey here. [Porecki] spent a lot of time at London Irish and a lot of time injured. He would have made our squad last year but unfortunately got injured prior to that so he’s probably got a bit of relief in his mind. He’s been excellent, very good at set piece, his physicality – ticks a lot of boxes for us.”

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