Jake Gordon will start at halfback for the NSW Waratahs on Thursday in their trial against the Highlanders. Photo: Les SmithNSW Waratahs halfback Jake Gordon has earned a trial match starting spot against the Highlanders and Nathan Grey says the rookie is putting pressure on Wallabies representative Nick Phipps.
The Waratahs have recalled stars Michael Hooper, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Dean Mumm, Will Skelton and Bernard Foley for their final pre-season match, at Brookvale Oval on Thursday night.
Irae Simone will start at inside-centre, Andrew Kellaway at fullback, while Harry Jones and Reece Robinson have been selected on the left and right wings, respectively.
An all-Wallabies front row of Tom Robertson, who has switched over to loose-head, Tolu Latu and Kepu will pack down in front of second-rowers Mumm and Skelton.
Jack Dempsey, Hooper and Michael Wells round out the back row.
The most eye-raising selection is that of Gordon, who had a stellar NRC campaign last season.
That is not to say Phipps, who featured in four of five Tests on the Wallabies spring tour – he did not get on the field against Ireland in Dublin – will not walk straight back into the starting spot next Saturday in round one.
However, Grey said there was a genuine selection headache brewing when it came to the halfback spot.
“There’s three [number] nines in the program at the moment that are all training and performing in a way that is making the decisions difficult for [head coach] Daryl [Gibson],” Grey said. “Jake and Matty Lucas will be getting time and they’re pushing really hard.”
Asked whether Phipps was still the frontrunner to play halfback against the Western Force in just over a week, Grey said: “We’re very confident in what Nick can do. Daryl’s really clear and honest with the guys around that nine spot is up for grabs. It’s up to the other guys to probably really step up and take it off him.”
The Highlanders will field a strong side, with New Zealand backs Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa all getting a run.
All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, regarded by many as the best in the world, will also be there in what will be a “really good contest” for Gordon.
“It’s really good to test yourself against a quality outfit,” Grey said. “We’ve got no doubt he [Gordon] can do that and it’ll be a really good test for him and a few other guys around just trying to execute what we can against quality opposition in a tough arena.”
Foley slots back into the chief playmaker role and will have a new man in Simone outside him, a player Grey and Foley have big wraps on.
“He’s been impressive and does a lot of the fundamental things well, which is really pleasing to see,” Grey said. “He’s played well in the trials, so he’s performing at a high level in the company that he is in and it’ll be another step up this week against the Highlanders.”
Foley said: “Irae has set the place on fire. He’s an extreme talent and he’s a big guy. He doesn’t shy away from the contact. He’s been really impressive in trying to fill that void of Kurtley [Beale] gone.”
The match will begin at 6.30pm and will be split into two 45-minute halves.
Waratahs: Tom Robertson, Tolu Latu, Sekope Kepu, Dean Mumm, Will Skelton, Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, Michael Wells, Jake Gordon, Bernard Foley, Harry Jones, Irae Simone, Israel Folau, Reece Robinson, Andrew Kellaway.
Reserves: Hugh Roach, Paddy Ryan, David Lolohea, Sam Needs, David McDuling, Nick Phipps, Matt Lucas, David Horwitz, Senio Toleafoa, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Ned Hanigan, Brad Wilkin, Maclean Jones, Con Foley, Bryce Hegarty, Andrew Deegan/Mack Mason.
Highlanders: Daniel Lienert-Brown, Liam Coltman, Siate Tokolahi, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Luke Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Tevita Li, Rob Thompson, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith.
Reserves: Aki Seiuli, Craig Millar, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Guy Millar, Adrian Smith, Josh Dickson, Alex Ainley, Elliot Dixon, Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt, Kayne Hammington, Josh Renton, Fletcher Smith, Sio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Matt Faddes, Pat Osborne, Jason Emery.