Deans facing selection dilemma
Robbie Deans says Australia's strength in depth has made picking a team for the visit of Wales and Scotland one of his hardest ever tasks.
The Wallabies begin their 2012 international season with a Test against Scotland in Newcastle on June 5, before three eagerly anticipated clashes with Six Nations champions Wales.
Star backs James O'Connor and Quade Cooper are yet to return from injury, but the Wallabies have no shortage of world-class players to fill the gaps.
Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane are all capable of lighting up the backline, while captain James Horwill and elite flanker David Pocock set the tone for a much-improved group of forwards.
"In terms of the team itself, it's a tough selection," Deans said.
"And it's the toughest selection I've had to do on my watch. We've now got competition for positions and that's good from our perspective.
"Out of necessity we won't be able to play the same playing group in that first week when we've got two Test matches.
"Test match rugby is distinct from Super Rugby. It's intense, it's brutal, so we will have to - and this is where our depth is an advantage - we will have to incorporate more than just a team of 22.
"But we will also be seeking continuity, because that will be advantageous for us."
Nominally deployed at full-back, Beale has impressed standing in for O'Connor at fly-half with club side Melbourne Rebels in recent weeks.
And his performances look to have earned him the right to contend for the five-eighth role at international level.
"Kurtley's done very well, he's thrived as we would expect," Deans said.
"He's got history in that position, he's a very capable player, he's enjoyed the responsibility.
"I think he found the work-rate quite tough initially, but he's embraced that task and he's an option for us as well. It's fantastic from the Wallabies' perspective."
Less likely to feature early in the series is Cooper.
The 24-year-old only made his Queensland Reds return last weekend after eight months out with a knee injury, and a lack of match sharpness is likely to count against him when the Wallabies selection is finalised.
"To get himself back into peak condition, it's a position where you make a lot of decisions," Deans said.
"You can't go from the couch to a Test match. He hasn't been on the couch obviously, he's been working very hard in terms of his conditioning and he's in great shape.
"But those rugby instincts, those in-game instincts, take a little bit of time to come back."
Further behind on the comeback trail is O'Connor, who suffered a lacerated liver playing against the Waratahs on April 21.
The man lured to the Rebels from the Western Force is likely to be sidelined for at least four more weeks, with Deans effectively ruling him out of the matches against Scotland and Wales.
"I saw the surgeon on Monday, it's healing up, probably come down about three centimetres, which is a positive," O'Connor said.
"But it's just not quite there to do contact yet.
"Hopefully I'll speak to Robbie and maybe in a month's time I'll be able to have those little chats and maybe move forward into playing."