Party of five: Wallabies fullback options amid Israel Folau’s exit

Rugby

Israel Folau has seemingly played his last game in a Wallabies jersey with Rugby Australia revealing it intends to terminate his contract, unless there are “mitigating factors” behind his social media comments and virtual radio silence since posting them.

Folau would have almost certainly been selected at fullback for the Wallabies at the Rugby World Cup later this year, such has been his play for the Waratahs in Super Rugby this season.

But that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare, either. There are as many as five genuine candidates who could fill the No. 15 jersey, giving the Wallabies selection panel plenty of options depending on how exactly they want to play the game.

Tom Banks

Is there a faster player in Australian rugby? Banks has made the fullback position at the Brumbies his own over the last couple of years, his blinding speed proving a real asset in a backline that has sometimes struggled for fluidity. That was evident in Round 2 against the Chiefs earlier this year while his long-range effort against the Bulls in Pretoria from 2018 is well worth digging out on YouTube, too. He has however seen precious little game time at Test level, despite making a huge impression in the Wallabies pre-Rugby Championship hit-out last year. Banks is also an adept kicker of the rugby ball, though his work in the air could be challenged at international level.

Kurtley Beale

It’s hardly been the ideal start for Beale this season, but he isn’t alone in performing below his best at the Waratahs in 2019. Crucially, he has had one start at fullback, in the 26-14 win over the Reds at the SCG, but has since been returned to inside centre; he was demoted to the bench last week in Auckland. What’s often forgotten about Beale however is the fact that during his early years in Test rugby, before Folau arrived on the scene, he largely filled the fullback role. Beale was playing so well, too, that he was nominated for World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2010. Can he get back to that kind of form? He’ll need to spend some time there at the Tahs, but given that position is also suddenly vacant, Beale’s opportunity may have just arrived.

Dane Haylett-Petty

Currently sidelined from Super Rugby with a toe injury, Haylett-Petty looms as the most likely first choice for Cheika and co. The Rebels custodian actually pushed Folau to the wing on a couple of occasions last year, but has largely otherwise found himself on the wing at Test level. Haylett-Petty is an excellent operator under the high ball, and boasts an uncanny ability to beat the first few defenders when returning to terra firma thereafter. He also possesses a sound kicking game and is a proven defender, though lacks the raw speed of Banks. Still, Haylett-Petty will no doubt get his shot in a shortened Rugby Championship; injury could be his biggest roadblock.

Reece Hodge

Fresh off a hat-trick, at fullback, in the Rebels’ win over the Sunwolves, Hodge has proven himself as the Wallabies’ Mr Fixit since debuting in 2016. He played on the wing, before a move to outside centre last year, only to see his spring tour derailed by a broken foot. Hodge’s biggest strengths are his kicking game, and strong ball-carrying ability; he also has the defensive mettle to stand in the front line and allow for less competent inside backs to shift in behind. There are question marks over his ability to cope with the high ball, and he can be a tad cumbersome on the turn. But one huge asset in his arsenal is his long-range goal-kicking; that could be huge come World Cup time.

Jack Maddocks

The third of the Rebels’ contenders, Maddocks has only had a few starts at fullback in his short Super Rugby career to date, particularly since Haylett-Petty’s arrival. On the wing, however, Maddocks has proven himself a supreme finisher and one who leads this year’s Super Rugby try-scoring chart with eight five-pointers. It would certainly be a gamble to throw him in at fullback in Japan, but he has already shown Test rugby presents few fears and will be better for making his debut amid the Wallabies’ woes of 2018.

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