Unpredictability is key to the Wallabies’ World Cup plans after coach Michael Cheika opted for pace and creativity in a revamped team for the year’s opening Test.
Cheika showed some of his hand by selecting Quade Cooper and Will Genia as the halves ahead of his NSW Waratahs pair Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps and slotting recalled exile Matt Giteau alongside them for Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash with South Africa.
In a further pointer, speedy ball-running back-rowers Scott Higginbotham and Michael Hooper beat off tighter contenders Ben McCalman and David Pocock for starting spots as the Wallabies prepare to run the plus-sized Springboks around Suncorp Stadium.
Assistant coach Stephen Larkham indicated it was a sign of things to come.
“We’ve got our own identity that we want to live by,” Larkham said.
“We want to be seen to be unpredictable, and I think those guys certainly bring that unpredictability.”
Central to that desire is richly-gifted playmaker Cooper, who delighted coaches with his energy and fitness levels in camp over the last two weeks following a Super Rugby season ruined by three shoulder injuries.
“He knows everything back to front. At the moment some of the guys are probably struggling to keep up with him,” Larkham said.
“The feeling is we’ve got a long campaign ahead of us, we’ve got make sure we find the right combinations before we get to the World Cup.
“We’re not saying that we’re experimenting with combinations at the moment – we certainly feel this combination is going to be the best one to win the game this weekend.”
While Hooper relegated master ball-pilferer Pocock to the bench for his return after two seasons lost to knee injuries, Larkham said there was a “good chance” the pair would end up playing together at some stage.
Hooper and Higginbotham give the Wallabies a range of attacking options which Genia is keen to help exploit – although he knows it won’t be easy against an experienced South African pack.
“The back row for the Springboks is excellent – guys who are very strong on the ball, good engines,” Genia said.
“We’ve definitely got to work hard if we’re going to play at pace and keep possession.”
The relatively small Giteau is a major point of difference for the Wallabies from many international teams who boast monster inside centres like All Blacks star Ma’a Nonu.
Preparing to play his 93rd Test four years after the last one, France-based Giteau said he felt like he was “thrown in the deep end” at times during Australia’s gruelling training camp, which Larkham described as an eight-week pre-season rolled into seven days.
Yet the 32-year-old has slotted back into the mix seamlessly, dispelling his own doubts over whether he was still up to scratch at international level.
“The culture that Cheik’s created and the boys have bought into, has been very good,” Giteau said.
“But having said that, that culture hasn’t been tested. We haven’t played a game yet so we’ll see after Saturday night.”
Wallabies: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper (vc), Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Giteau, Rob Horne, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper (vc), Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Will Skelton, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore (c), James Slipper. Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Scott Sio, Greg Holmes, James Horwill, David Pocock, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Drew Mitchell.