Ewen McKenzie is keeping his options open on the Wallabies' captaincy, declaring that form trumps leadership skills and will dictate his decision on who leads Australia against Italy this weekend.
The Wallabies coach said no one, captain or otherwise, was guaranteed selection after the tourists' dreadful performance against England in London last week.
He praised the performance of dumped captain James Horwill, who started the match in the second row having ceded the leadership role to No.8 Ben Mowen, but said he was more concerned with righting some of the Wallabies' technical problems before deciding who would captain the side in Turin.
“I don't think, given our circumstance, that we can say anything is locked in,” McKenzie said.
“How can we be comfortable with anything? You've got to keep looking at everything and wondering if you've got the best outcome. At this stage, with four Tests left and where we've been, no one can feel settled.”
Mowen looks set for another turn in the Wallabies No.6 jersey after Scott Fardy was ruled out after being concussed against England.
McKenzie is likely to use the same back-row combination that started against New Zealand last month, with Ben McCalman starting at No.8 and Dave Dennis coming on to the bench.
He would not be drawn on the leadership combination used against England, with Mowen as captain and Quade Cooper as vice-captain, except to say that the team's second-half capitulation meant he did not get the desired outcome.
“I'm open-minded about leadership and team selections. I'm not going to make it comfortable until we start getting outcomes. Through the process and that pressure, people will emerge,” he said.
“There's different styles of leadership but I haven't assessed it too much in that space; there's a lot more technical issues out of the game that I'm concerned about at the moment.”
He would not be drawn on what changes he was considering, but signalled that hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, on the comeback trail after a hamstring injury, would come onto the bench if he made it through training this week.
Polota-Nau has not played Test rugby since last year's spring tour, by the end of which he was wearing the No.2 jersey ahead of Stephen Moore.
“A lot of it is confidence after being a long while out of the game – having the confidence to get out there, especially with a hamstring, and doing all the things you need to do: scrum, bend over at the rucks and get cleaned out, and stuff like that,” McKenzie said.
“He's in a much better space. We did a lot of contact last week so he enjoyed that and it gives him confidence. He should be in the mix."
Rob Simmons also trained with the team on Monday and is likely to rejoin Horwill in the second row, if McKenzie's praise of the former captain was anything to go by.
“I thought James played much better; you only have to look at the stats to see what he did. He won half a dozen line outs, missed one tackle, made a heap more, and had a physical pressure,” he said.
“At one point he pressured the fullback on a kick then got back and carried the ball 60 metres back. How you motivate people is different for everyone but we certainly got a better performance outcome from him, which is what we wanted.”
McKenzie also said it was taking time for him to get over the result in London. He vowed to keep breeding competition within the squad until the players picked themselves for starting honours.
“We fought really hard in that first half to be in front so not to win that game is a massive disappointment to our group; it's really hard to put it to one side,” he said.
“You have to keep looking . . . You have to have competition and if there's going to be some change in that space you have to make people motivated. And you find out if they are even motivated enough to be at that level, whether they are up for the competition. Once you have that contest internally you can take that onto the field.
“I don't think we're not competitive but we're not getting the right sort of the scoreboard. That's massively frustrating. I get that people feel [disappointed] but I know myself how I feel and the players are the same."