Jake Gordon of the Waratahs passes the ball during a Super Rugby trial match against the Highlanders in 2016.
Jake Gordon of the Waratahs passes the ball during a Super Rugby trial match against the Highlanders in 2016. Rob Jefferies

Phipps under pressure to hold Tahs spot

WALLABIES halfback Nick Phipps is under pressure to hold on to his NSW halfback jersey for next week's Super Rugby opener, with Jake Gordon starting in the Tahs' final trial and coaches declaring the No.9 spot is "up for grabs".

Gordon is a Sydney Uni clubmate of Phipps and was the Waratahs' third-string No.9 last year but he has climbed the ladder after outstanding NRC form and a strong pre-season.

The 23-year-old will start in the halves with Bernard Foley against the Highlanders on Thursday night at Brookvale Oval, with Phipps and his 2016 deputy Matt Lucas both on an extended bench.

After Gordon performed well against the Brumbies in a trial in Mudgee, coaches are wanting to see if he can step up again and handle the heat against the Highlanders and their All Blacks No.9 Aaron Smith.

But if Gordon performs well, NSW assistant coach Nathan Grey gave a strong indication the NSW Country Eagles player could be a bolter for the Waratahs' first competition game against the Force at Allianz Stadium on Saturday week.

"We are very confident in knowing what Nick can do, and (coach) Daryl (Gibson) is very clear and honest with the guys in saying that nine spot is up for grabs. Obviously we know what Nick can do so it is probably up to the other guys to stick their hand up and take it off him," Grey said.

"There are three nines in the program at the moment who are all training and playing in a way that is making the decisions difficult for Daryl."

Each of the Tahs' three halfbacks have different strengths; Gordon is a running halfback and Lucas is a superb organiser, while Phipps' engine and passion is unrivalled in Australian rugby.

Playing against Smith, who has a brilliantly rounded game, will be a good test for Gordon to see if he can transfer NRC and training form to the Super Rugby pressure cooker.

"Up until three quarters of the way through last year, Aaron Smith was the best nine in the world. So it should be a really good contest," Grey said.

"We have no doubt he (Gordon) can (play at Super level). It will be a really good test for him, and for a few other guys around just trying to execute what we want to do in a tough arena."

One of the other players NSW coaches will be assessing for Super Rugby aptitude is rookie centre Irae Simone.

Simone, who shared the NRC player of the year award with Gordon last year, was named at No.12 alongside Bernard Foley and Israel Folau and many are keen to see if reality justifies the hype around his huge potential.

Foley said Simone had the capacity to fill the void left by Kurtley Beale.

"Irae has set the place on fire," Foley said.

"He is an extreme talent, he is a big guy, he is a big build and doesn't shy away from the contact. So he has been really impressive, especially trying to fill that void of a second ball player with Kurtley gone. He has impressed everyone during the pre-season but as we know, coming into the competition it is a different ballgame."

Grey said Simone had proved himself at Waratahs training and in early trials but would be tested by the Kiwi side, which named a strong team featuring Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Malaki Fekitoa, Waisako Naholo and Ben Smith.

"He is performing at a high level in the company he is in, and it will be another step up this week against the Highlanders. He has been impressive and he does a lot of the fundamental things well, which is pleasing to see," Grey said.