World-class flanker David Pocock is set to bolster the Wallabies on next month’s European tour but won’t regain the captaincy from veteran lock Nathan Sharpe.
Coach Robbie Deans on Sunday revealed he expected Pocock, sidelined for two months following knee surgery, would return on the four-Test tour to set up an intriguing selection battle with young gun Michael Hooper.
Hooper was again one of Australia’s best players in their surprise 18-all draw with the All Blacks on Saturday night to lodge a strong case to keep the No.7 jersey.
While Pocock isn’t likely to be fit to start the opening November 10 clash with France, his availability is a major boost for the inexperienced and injury-ravaged Wallabies.
However first-choice captain James Horwill won’t be among the 30-man squad to be announced Thursday or Friday after suffering a recent setback in his rehabilitation from hamstring surgery.
Although Sharpe was Australia’s fourth-choice skipper this season, Deans confirmed the 34-year-old would keep the captaincy reins ahead of Pocock due to his inspirational leadership in the past four Tests.
“Sharpie has been fantastic as a leader,” he said.
“He’s brought a lot of composure to the group and brought us back on task for what is important at any given moment.
“He’s also developing the people around him.”
Australia will also be boosted by extra experience and leadership on tour with hooker Stephen Moore (hamstring) and utility back Berrick Barnes (punctured lung) cleared to return.
But controversial playmaker Quade Cooper (knee) won’t be considered – along with fellow star backs Will Genia and James O’Connor – and destructive winger Digby Ioane (knee) is no certainty to tour.
Also in some doubt following a head-butt and knee to the head of Richie McCaw at Suncorp Stadium is abrasive forward Scott Higginbotham who was cited for both misdemeanours.
Suspension would be a heavy blow but may open the door for Pocock and Hooper to be selected together in the back-row.
Deans conceded he could play Pocock at No.8 in a smaller back-row, but also suggested he could rotate his open-side flankers in much the same way the All Blacks share starting duties with their top-shelf hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore.
“There’s obviously a lineout consequence (with Pocock at No.8) but he’s got the skill set in terms of passing, he’s one of our best passers to be fair – there’s some good scope there,” he said, also praising the rise of back-up No.7 Liam Gill.
Deans indicated he was likely to go against tradition and take just two halfbacks – Nick Phipps and Brett Sheehan – on tour in the hope neither suffer an injury.
He ruled out calling in France-based Luke Burgess but the fact the former Waratah will be nearby could conveniently see eligibility rules relaxed in a one-off if a back-up is required.
Australia face a tough start by meeting France in Paris then England at Twickenham on successive weekends before playing Italy in Florence and Wales in Cardiff.
“If the boys turn up like they did last night it will be a good tour,” said Deans.
Prop Sekope Kepu was in a moonboot on Sunday after undergoing scans on his right ankle but is expected to recover in time.