Western Force flanker David Pocock will captain the Qantas Wallabies for the first time after being named to lead Australia in Saturday’s match against the Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium in London (kick-off 2.35pm local, 1.35am, Sun 27 Nov, AEDST)
The 23-year-old, who is a two-time nominee for the International Rugby Board’s Player of the Year, led the Force for the first time in Super Rugby earlier this year during the Western Australian team’s 27-24 win over the Melbourne Rebels in the final round of this year’s competition . He also led the Australian team at the Under-20 World Cup in Wales in 2008.
The Pocock appointment comes after Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans and his fellow selectors opted to start regular skipper James Horwill from the bench, in order to lighten what has been a heavy work load for the 26-year-old through the 2011 season. Horwill featured in all 18 games of the Queensland Reds’ title-winning season in Super Rugby, and has subsequently sat out just two of the 12 Tests played by the Wallabies in the year to date.
“While he ended the Rugby World Cup with a bit of a shoulder niggle, James is in good nick, given the load that he has carried,” Deans says. “We just felt that this was a good opportunity, both to lessen the load on James, while also giving David the chance to gain experience captaining the side.”
Deans says that Pocock already has a significant influence in on and off field decision making anyway, as a member of the team’s leadership group. Taking on the captaincy for this match simply offers him an opportunity to broaden his leadership skills, while also providing additional support to Horwill.
The new skipper will be surrounded by the core of the side which beat Wales 21-18 in the Bronze Final at last month’s Rugby World Cup.
One notable positional change sees James O’Connor start at flyhalf for the first time, after previously having appeared on the wing or at fullback. The move had long been flagged as likely for the talented 21-year-old, with the Wallabies taking the opportunity to move the goal-kicking utility closer to the action in the absence from this tour of Quade Cooper, who has been the regular custodian at 10 this year.
O’Connor will play outside halfback Will Genia, and inside of NSW Waratahs playmaker Berrick Barnes, who will start at inside centre.
Barnes’ NSW Waratahs colleague Rob Horne also gains a starting role, although he completed all but nine minutes of the Bronze medal match in Auckland after replacing an injured Kurtley Beale. That chance saw Horne slot in at centre, with the versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper moved to fullback, and is a formation that Deans has retained for this weekend’s contest.
Horwill’s relocation aside, the starting forward pack is the same as that which Australia fielded in its most recent Test outing. The bench does show a slightly different look, with uncapped loose forward Dave Dennis and inside centre Ben Tapuai, both featuring amongst a five-forward, two-back, breakdown amongst the run on substitutes.
While Australia has a good recent record against the Barbarians, the squad has inside knowledge of the motivation the representatives of the festival club will bring to the game, with Ashley-Cooper, O’Connor and Genia all having appeared for the Baabaas during their win over the touring South African side last year.
Ashley-Cooper and Genia were also involved the year before, when the Barbarians beat an All Black side prepared by the men who have been directing operations for the Baabaas this week – All Black coaches Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
“It’s an amazing tradition that the Barbarians have. Receiving the opportunity to play for the club on the big stage, in games like the one this weekend, is a huge honour,” Genia says. “Being able to play in these games for the Baabaas is a privilege – because selection comes by invitation – but it also carries with it a huge responsibility to perform. Make no mistake, this is going to be a tough match.”
The Genia warning is echoed by Deans, who points to Australia’s experience against the Baabaas at Wembley Stadium on the 2008 Spring Tour, where the Wallabies needed a late try to squeeze home 18-11 in a dramatic contest against a star-studded Barbarians cast not dis-similar in quality to the line-up that has been chosen to represent the club on Saturday.
“They’re all proud men,” Deans says of the Barbarians group, “and they will be looking at this match as a great opportunity with no significant downside.
“The Baabaas results against New Zealand and South Africa in the last two years have shown what is possible, and what they can bring to the occasion. They’ve got class players all over the field who will play without fear or inhibition. That is going to make them a very tough outfit to beat.”
15. Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs)
14. Lachie Turner (NSW Waratahs)
13. Rob Horne (NSW Waratahs)
12. Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs)
11. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)
10. James O’Connor (Melbourne Rebels)
9. Will Genia (Queensland Reds)
8. Ben McCalman (Western Force)
7. David Pocock (Western Force, captain)
6. Scott Higginbotham (Queensland Reds)
5. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force)
4. Rob Simmons (Queensland Reds)
3. Salesi Ma’afu (Brumbies)
2. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
1. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
16. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
17. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
18. James Horwill (Queensland Reds)
19. Dave Dennis (NSW Waratahs)
20. Matt Hodgson (Western Force)
21. Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels)
22. Ben Tapuai (Queensland Reds)