George Smith will lead a Wallaby side featuring three changes from that which lost to South Africa recently, when Australia face New Zealand in a Bledisloe Cup/Tri-Nations double header in Sydney on Saturday.
As was expected Adam Ashley Cooper moves from fullback to centre in place of the injured captain Stirling Mortlock, which allows the 19-year-old James O’Connor to make his first start in a Bledisloe Cup Test – after excelling at fullback coming off the bench, during the last 50 minutes of the 17-29 loss to South Africa in Cape Town.
Heineken Cup-winner Rocky Elsom makes his comeback to Australian colours on the blindside flank, having finally overcome the knee injury he brought back with him on his return to Australia.
The presence of Elsom necessitates the third change, with Richard Brown being shifted from the side to the back of the scrum in place of Wycliff Palu.
Brown played his first eight Tests for Australia as a No.8, before being switched to the side of the scrum for the opening two matches of the Tri-Nations to accommodate the return from injury of Palu.
Elsom returned to Australia with the Barbarians at the end of May, but was unable to play due to bruising in his knee which has kept the 26-year-old on the sideline since. He was player of the final in Leinster’s historic Heineken Cup win over Leicester at the end of the Northern Hemisphere season.
Saturday will be his 41st Test, but his first since the deciding game of last year’s Tri-Nations at Brisbane.
“While he hasn’t been able to get a game in, Rocky has done the work to get back up to speed. We are satisfied that he is good to go,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said.
“It is a big ask of him to make his comeback in a Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations Test, but that’s the reality of our schedule, and is the sort of challenge he thrives on.”
Deans said the decisions to relocate Brown to No.8, while moving Ashley-Cooper to centre, with O’Connor starting at fullback were form-related choices.
The decision to start O’Connor was not considered a risk, he said, based on the way the teenaged Western Force back had performed in South Africa.
“He showed in Cape Town that he was quite capable of handling himself at this level,” Deans says.
“The pressure there, given the circumstance in which James entered the game [Australia was 10-20 down and had just lost skipper Stirling Mortlock to injury], was as great then as it could be, and he acquitted himself well.
“As did Adam, when he moved into centre after Stirling was injured. Saturday is another good opportunity for him in the midfield.”
Australia beat New Zealand 34-19 in the corresponding Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup clash last year in Sydney.
Eleven of the starting XV from that night have been selected again, although the team has an entirely new three-quarter line [fullback, wings and centre] as well as a different No.8.
Australia was led on that occasion, as it will be on Saturday night, by Smith, who became Australia’s 75th Test captain when he led the Wallabies to victory over Canada at Bordeaux during the 2007 World Cup.
Smith has subsequently led his country on three occasions during Deans’ term as Wallaby coach, for wins over New Zealand and the Barbarians last year, and Italy at Melbourne earlier in 2009.
“George has filled the role before in similar circumstances and is not fazed by it,” Deans said.
“He’s been there before, and been successful. That level of experience is going to be crucial on Saturday night, especially when you look at the depth of experience [in the All Blacks] that will be coming back at us the other way!”
While Australia conceded just two tries during its away-from-home losses to New Zealand (16-22) and South Africa (17-29) to open the competition; Deans said his men will have to “raise the bar” in order to square up this year’s Bledisloe Cup series.
“We’ve come up short twice now, and we need to work harder and be more precise in what we do, both collectively and as individuals,” he says.
“Obviously discipline has been an area of concern. It is something we have addressed, but it is not the only aspect of our play that we have looked at. We need to be diligent in all aspects of our performance to give ourselves the best opportunity to get home.”
While Australia currently sits at the bottom of the Tri-Nations standings, it is the last team to have had a home game.
That changes this weekend.
Saturday is the first leg of three consecutive weekends where Australian fans can enjoy the highest quality rugby on home soil, with the Wallabies entertaining the Springboks in Perth and Brisbane for Mandela Trophy matches on successive Saturday’s following the season’s second Bledisloe Cup fixture.
Australia: 15 James O’Connor, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Richard Brown, 7 George Smith (captain), 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 David Pocock, 20 Will Genia, 21 Ryan Cross, 22 Peter Hynes.