Wallabies spots on the line in Super derby

Michael Hooper versus David Pocock is all the talk but it’s just one of numerous key match-ups that Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and his assistant Stephen Larkham will be monitoring on Friday night.

Cheika returns to GIO Stadium for the first time since infamously breaking a door in the visiting teams’ coaches’ box in frustration during the Waratahs’ 28-23 round-five loss to the Brumbies last year.

If Cheika was on edge that night, the stakes will be even higher this time around as the Waratahs look to keep pace with the Australian conference leaders as the race to the Super Rugby finals heats up.

Wallabies spots are also on the line less than six months out from the World Cup and the appointment last month of Brumbies mentor Larkham as Australia’s attack coach adds to the significance of the round-12 showdown.

All over the park but especially in the backline, Australia’s World Cup hopefuls will go head to head.

The prospect of France-based utility ace Matt Giteau squeezing his way into Cheika’s 31-man squad as a midfield playmaker and third halfback has heaped pressure on NSW’s incumbent Wallaby No.9 Nick Phipps and his Brumbies rival Nick White.

With Will Genia and emerging Melbourne Rebel Nick Stirzaker also in the mix, Phipps and White will be aware Cheika and Larkham will be watching with interest.

The midfield battle between Waratahs stars Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley and Brumbies’ midfield playmaker Christian Lealiifano will also be a feature, but injury has denied Matt Toomua his shot at the NSW pair.

NSW wingers Rob Horne and Peter Betham and Brumbies rival Henry Speight also have prime opportunities to showcase their Rugby Championship and World Cup credentials.

But perhaps the most enticing backline duel of the night looms between Waratahs outside centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and bullocking Brumby Tevita Kuridrani.

Ashley-Cooper, who missed the last clash between the two sides last month when roaming fullback Israel Folau outpointed Kuridrani in a man-of-the-match display in Sydney, is Australia’s incumbent No.13.

But he only regained the spot when Kuridrani was suspended for the Wallabies’ final two Tests of last year’s spring tour.

“I always look forward to playing the best centres in the world and Tevita’s certainly up there,” Ashley-Cooper said.

Ashley-Cooper doesn’t view their match-up as necessarily a direct shootout for a Wallabies spot, though.

“I want a gold jersey. It doesn’t matter what number it is. I want a gold jersey,” he said.

“Whether that’s outside centre or somewhere in the back three, Tevita’s certainly a player I’m competing with.”

Kuridrani suffered a shoulder injury against the Waratahs last outing that was expected to sideline him for two months.

But he returned in half the time to help the Brumbies end a two-game run with a steadying 31-18 bonus-point win over the Highlanders last Friday.

“I was really a bit down about thinking that I’d miss that much of the season, but it’s a miracle that I came back early,” Kuridrani said.

“I’m really looking forward to playing them again, especially after coming off not playing.

“Adam’s been playing a really good game ever since he came back from injury and I’m just really looking forward to the challenge of playing against him.

“The forwards have been working really hard. For us as a backline, we have to step up now to get the pressure off.”

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