Robbie Deans faces a new dilemma when it comes to picking his Qantas Wallabies side to face the Lions this summer according to former national skipper John Eales.
Deans spent most of last year patching together a constantly changing matchday squad after a horrendous run of injuries to Test veterans and international newcomers alike.
With the likes of Will Genia, David Pocock, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and James Horwill all missing for much of last term, Deans could have arguably named a stronger side from the players who weren’t available than the ones who were.
Fast forward to the eve of the three-Test series with Britain and Ireland’s elite and only Pocock is still missing, leaving Deans with a raft of options across almost every position.
But while the change in fortune is undoubtedly a major boost to the host nation’s chances of series success, Eales admits there are contentious calls to be made, especially with three men Lions coach Warren Gatland expects to be starting against his side in Brisbane on June 22.
“Robbie Deans and the Wallabies have a completely different dilemma to their last couple of seasons,” Eales wrote in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“With so many fit and in-form contenders for a change, it's happily a dilemma of who to leave out rather than who to select.
“But that in itself is a problem as, with little difference between the best of the contenders in some positions, they are genuinely undecided who wears the Gold.
"Deans has been offered some suggestions from Gatland who has cantankerously proffered that George Smith, Israel Folau and Quade Cooper would be automatic selections for him. You must be wary taking selection advice from a rival coach as they are more than a tad conflicted. In fact, the only potential effect from Gatland's "well-intentioned" suggestions is the unsettling of the Wallabies squad.
“No coincidence his three muses are aspirants for particularly contentious positions. While there is no contention that the three candidates are up for the task, there is contention as to whether they would be Deans' first choices.
“But even considering his preferences, there are other confounding factors for each of these contenders. Folau, although quickly accomplished, is still discovering the nuances of the code, and Cooper is yet to make his return from an unsavoury stoush with Deans last year.
“But Smith's potential inclusion is perhaps the most contentious, and Gatland has been particularly vocal about it. Most telling was when he asked, 'Is it winning at all costs or keeping with what they have already got?' Or when he taunted, 'I would be selecting him but hopefully they will stick to their rules and don't pick him'.”
Smith has been in outstanding form for the Brumbies since signing a short-term deal during the Japanese off season earlier this year and has understandably jumped towards the front of the queue for a Wallaby recall.
The veteran flanker hasn’t played for his country after heading to France and then Japan in 2010 but could possibly add to his 110-Test caps when the Lions come calling.
But for the 32-year-old to face the tourists for the second time – he featured in all three Tests in 2001 – the Australian Rugby Union would have to bend their rules on foreign-based players, something Eales has mixed feelings about.
“In Smith's favour is his wealth of experience and his unblemished status as a citizen – even before you consider his stellar form. Further, he is exactly the sort of man you seek to build a culture around,” added Eales, who captained his country to series glory against the Lions 12 years ago.
“Against him is the need to modify an important restraint demanding that those selected for the Wallabies must be contracted with Australian Rugby. Smith is not; he is primarily contracted with Japanese club Suntory.
“Also against him is the form of Michael Hooper, among Australia's best players last season, and Liam Gill – two twentysomethings you would also be thrilled to build a culture around. If they were off Test match-pace, Smith would be a more enticing option, but they are both pace-setters themselves which makes it less urgent.
“It has been truly wonderful to see Smith starring in Super Rugby again, and while I would love to see him back in a Wallabies jersey, exceptions are dangerous. As a player he has made so many of us who have played with him look better than we perhaps were. But I'm not sure we are at the point where we need to make a short-term exception to what has been such an important long-term contracting rule in keeping our best players playing all their rugby in Australia.
“It is easy to let sentiment trump pragmatism in selection but before you do, you must consider all the consequences, both short and long term.”