The clearing of a number of injuries has allowed Australia to return almost in its entirety to the combination which opened its Rugby World Cup campaign, after the Wallabies side was announced for Sunday’s quarter-final against South Africa in Wellington.
Australia kicked off the tournament with a commanding 32-6 win over Italy and all of those starters apart from centre Anthony Fainga’a, who returns from injury via the bench, reappear in the run on list for this weekend’s sudden death encounter with the defending Rugby World Cup champions.
Fullback Kurtley Beale, winger Digby Ioane and inside centre Pat McCabe all return, after coming off the injured list, amongst a raft of changes from the run on side which featured last Saturday when Australia out-classed a gallant Russia 68-22 in its final Pool C match in Nelson.
Beale replaces injured winger Drew Mitchell, with James O’Connor relocating back to the right wing; McCabe steps in for Berrick Barnes, while Ioane resumes in the place of stand in Radike Samo, who relocates back to his favoured No 8 jersey.
Samo’s return to the back of the scrum is one of five changes to last week’s forward pack, with flanker Rocky Elsom (bench), second row Dan Vickerman (rested), tighthead prop Ben Alexander (rested) and loosehead prop Sekope Kepu (bench) all reinstated.
No 8 Ben McCalman, lock Nathan Sharpe, prop James Slipper and hooker Tatafu Polota Nau all drop to the bench while loose forward Scott Higginbotham has been omitted, with the versatile McCalman tagged to cover all three loose forward positions.
The versatility amongst the Australian backline resources has also played its part in the make-up of the bench, with reserve halfback Luke Burgess joined by flyhalf/inside centre Barnes and proven midfielder Fainga’a among the back reserves, in a substitutes bench which features a traditional three-back, four-forward split.
“We’ve gone with the players, and the combinations, which have served us best through the year to date,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says.
“Obviously injury, and managing individual player work-loads, has been a factor in selection through the tournament so far, but fortunately a lot of the injury problems that we’ve had are now behind us. The players that are coming back into the team after breaks are good to go.”
One of those is McCabe, who has overcome a sub-luxed shoulder, suffered after coming off the bench as a replacement during the 67-5 defeat of the United States of America in Wellington two weeks ago.
Prior to the injury, which forced the 23-year-old to miss last weekend’s match, he had occupied the Wallabies inside centre position for seven consecutive Tests this year.
This includes both of Australia’s previous Test wins over its quarter-final opponent.
The full Australian backline for Sunday’s game is the same as that which featured when the Wallabies beat South Africa 14-9 in Durban two months ago en-route to the country’s first Tri Nations title in a decade.
All but two of the starting forwards are also the same, with the differences being that Samo starts, after coming from the bench at King’s Park, while Vickerman takes over as the starting second row from Sharpe.
While Australia boasts a good recent record against South Africa, Deans says results in the past are “irrelevant”.
“All that matters is Sunday. The winner goes on, the loser goes home. Taking comfort from previous games is the quickest path way to the airport! The knock out phases of the World Cup are completely different to every other type of rugby we play: the stakes are higher, the intensity greater and the margins between success and failure smaller. We’ve seen that to some extent already in the tournament through the key pool matches and you can pretty much guarantee that it will all only intensify from here.”
Deans has previous coaching at experience at the tournament, having been the coaching coordinator of an All Black side that finished third in 2003 – New Zealand’s best World Cup return since the All Blacks were beaten in the 1995 final.
New Zealand eliminated South Africa 29-9 in Melbourne in the quarter-finals of that event, which rates as South Africa’s most recent defeat in Rugby World Cup, after the Springbok class of 2007 went through that tournament unbeaten.
“South Africa still has the core group from the last World Cup together. They know what it takes to be successful in knockout rugby and know how to close out the tight games,” Deans says.
“They’ve already shown that in this tournament when they came from behind to beat Wales by a point [17-16]. They have a group which has the knowledge and belief that it can get things done. They will bring that mentality forward with them on Sunday. If we are going to earn the right to advance to the next round, we have to match it.”
The match will be refereed by Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand.
15. Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs)
14. James O’Connor (Western Force)
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies)
12. Pat McCabe (Brumbies)
11. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)
10. Quade Cooper (Queensland Reds)
9. Will Genia (Queensland Reds)
8. Radike Samo (Queensland Reds)
7. David Pocock (Western Force)
6. Rocky Elsom (Brumbies)
5. James Horwill (Queensland Reds, captain)
4. Dan Vickerman (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
1. Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs)
16. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
17. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
18. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force)
19. Ben McCalman (Western Force)
20. Luke Burgess (NSW Waratahs)
21. Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs)
22. Anthony Fainga’a (Queensland Reds)