As many as four players could make their debuts for Australia after the Qantas Wallabies match day squad for Sunday’s Castrol Edge Rugby Test against Samoa was named today.
Melbourne Rebels halfback Nick Phipps and NSW Waratahs lock Sitaleki Timani have both been selected in the run on XV, while the Queensland Reds pair of hooker James Hanson and flanker Beau Robinson could also take their maiden Test bows from the bench.
One front row position on the bench is still to be named after prop Benn Robinson tweaked his knee at training yesterday. Western Force prop Pek Cowan and NSW Waratahs prop Al Baxter will join the team at training this afternoon.
Other features of the playing roster include a first Test start for Pat McCabe, who has been named at inside centre after finishing the Super Rugby season strongly in that position for the Brumbies. The Warringah Rats utility back has long been viewed as a midfield option by Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, and has been given his chance, working in tandem with fellow Brumbies Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper on either side of him.
Giteau has been given first shot at securing the flyhalf jersey while Ashley-Cooper returns to centre for the first time this year, having been largely employed on the wing at his Super Rugby franchise. The wonderfully versatile 27-year-old, who played his 50th Test against Italy in Florence on last year’s Spring Tour, ended 2010 as Australia’s incumbent centre, after featuring in the Wallabies final nine Tests from that position.
At halfback, Phipps has been handed his maiden Test start, after first wearing the Wallabies jersey during last year’s Spring Tour match against Irish province Munster. He and returning fullback Mark Gerrard will become the first two players to represent new Super Rugby franchise the Melbourne Rebels in the Australian Test side, with Gerrard to feature in his 24th Test but his first since Australia’s win over Japan at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Likewise Dan Vickerman is back. The NSW second rower, who has 55 Test caps to his name, has been named on the bench and will complete a remarkable comeback to international rugby after having taken three years out to finalise his studies in England.
Vickerman’s most recent appearance for the Wallabies was during the first year of Robbie Deans’ tenure as national coach, on an historic day in Durban where Australia won on South African soil for the first time in eight years, and only the second time in the professional era, with a 27-15 success at King’s Park. The 32-year-old made his return to the Australian scene with an appearance off the bench during the Waratahs final round robin match of the Super Rugby season against the Brumbies in Sydney.
The starting forward unit selected sees openside flanker Matt Hodgson involved for the first time amongst the run on line-up, after coming from the bench in his first four Test appearances last year. The 30-year-old deputises for Force team-mate and last year’s John Eales Medal winner David Pocock, who misses the match to allow him to rest a minor foot complaint.
This year’s Queensland Reds revelation Beau Robinson will back up Hodgson.
Skipper Rocky Elsom packs down on the other side of the scrum from the openside flankers in what will be just his second appearance at any level this year. Elsom began the year rehabilitating from injury and managed just 60 minutes for the Brumbies against the Force in Perth before another injury returned him to the sidelines.
In the second row, Timani will become the second member of his family to play Test rugby this year: his elder brother Sione has already represented Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup tournament.
Other players returning to the Test scene after a period of absence are back up prop Sekope Kepu, who hasn’t featured for the Wallabies since the Test against Scotland on the 2009 Spring Tour, and winger Digby Ioane.
Ioane, whose most recent appearance for Australia came against England at ANZ Stadium last year where his season was brought to a close due to a shoulder injury, is the only member of the Super Rugby champion Queensland Reds to feature in the starting XV. A further four Queenslanders are included on the bench, one of whom is still to be named, with the bench to be made up of five forwards and two back reserves.
“We assessed all of the Queensland guys when they joined us on Monday night and decided this was the best course for us,” Deans says. “They’ve had a big work load already this year. Given that our schedule is so congested, with five Test matches in seven weeks, we felt that now was realistically the only opportunity we had to give them a break.”
Deans says the decision was in no way disrespectful to Samoa, with a strong line-up fielded.
“Given the high most of those blokes had last weekend, it’s my experience that it does take a little while to come down from that,” he says. “They’ve refocused quickly on the task at hand representing their country, which is why we’ve included a good group of those players in the match day 22. They’ll get their opportunity, they’re excited, and I know they will all contribute when we call on them.
“For two of them [Beau Robinson and James Hanson], it will be their first experience representing Australia and that is a special moment no matter what the circumstance. You only play your first Test once!”
Manu Samoa arrived in Sydney fresh from three matches in the Pacific Nations Cup. The Pacific Islanders have brought together a strong squad loaded with players who boast both Super Rugby and European club experience. Five of the players in the Samoan squad were previously coached by Deans at the Crusaders.
“You only have to look at Samoa’s results on last year’s Spring tour where they drew with Scotland and ran both Ireland and England close to see how competitive they will be,” he says. “They’re a proud nation and their players will be excited, both by the prospect of playing on the big stage, but also the opportunity this match presents, both individually but also for Samoa as a team, on the way to the Rugby World Cup.”
Sunday will be just the fifth Test between Australia and Samoa but the first since 2005 in Sydney – a match that saw Elsom and Stephen Moore make their Test debuts.
15. Mark Gerrard (Melbourne Rebels)
14. James O’Connor (Western Force)
13. Adam Ashley Cooper (Brumbies)
12. Pat McCabe (Brumbies)
11. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)
10. Matt Giteau (Brumbies)
9. Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels)
8. Ben McCalman (Western Force)
7. Matt Hodgson (Western Force)
6. Rocky Elsom (Brumbies, captain)
5. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force)
4. Sitaleki Timani (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
1. Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs)
16. James Hanson (Queensland Reds)
17. To be advised
18. Dan Vickerman (NSW Waratahs)
19. Scott Higginbotham (Queensland Reds)
20. Beau Robinson (Queensland Reds)
21. Will Genia (Queensland Reds)
22. Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs)