Key prop Scott Sio has made a remarkable recovery to overcome a painful elbow injury in time for the Rugby World Cup final, while coach Michael Cheika has ignored calls to dump out-of-form fullback Israel Folau against defending champions New Zealand.
Sio’s inclusion is the only change made to the starting lineup from the semi-final victory over Argentina, and gives Cheika a full-strength squad to choose from for the Twickenham showdown on Saturday (Sunday AEDT).
Folau, the leading light in Australian rugby for the past two years, has been uncharacteristically subdued at the tournament – failing to score a try, spark the attack or look steady under the high ball.
The cross-code superstar has been playing injured for half of the tournament, having rolled his ankle in Australia’s crucial pool game victory over England a month ago.
That injury forced him to miss Australia’s quarter-final victory over Scotland, ending his record of never having missed a Test through injury, and hampered his performance against Los Pumas.
However, despite calls for the in-form Kurtley Beale to be promoted from the bench, Folau’s big-match experience has won out and Cheika has kept the faith in the former NRL champion to deliver in the biggest match of his rugby union career.
Other injury doubts, including lynchpin David Pocock (calf, broken nose), veteran centre Matt Giteau (groin) and rugged No.6 Scott Fardy (hip), have all been cleared to play.
And the surprise return of Sio, who suffered a serious elbow injury in a collapsed scrum during Australia’s tense victory over Scotland a fortnight ago, has given the Wallabies a huge boost in their bid to win a third World Cup.
“We still have lots of scope to improve and we’ll work on that before this next match against New Zealand,” Cheika said.
It had been feared Sio’s tournament might have been ended through injury, but after missing the battle with Argentina he slots straight back in at starting loosehead, relegating Australia’s most-capped prop James Slipper to the bench while Toby Smith drops out of the 23.
Slipper, who will play his 74th Test this weekend, had a miserable time against a powerful Pumas pack and conceded three scrum penalties before being subbed off midway through the second half.
But has been a big factor in coming off the bench against tiring scrums or when locking horns with the opposition’s second-string front-rows.
Pocock played the full 80 minutes against Argentina last week and suffered no recurrence of the calf complaint which plagued him for the previous two weeks.
He finished the game with a badly broken nose – which was broken in the first half, before being re-set and then broken again – which has left him with two black eyes, but the influential No.8 scoffed at suggestions it could stop him playing in a World Cup final.
“Nah, definitely no doubt,” he laughed.
“One of those things that’s sore at the time but will be right.”
Israel Folau, Adam Ashley Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Kane Douglas, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore (capt), Scott Sio. Res: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Greg Holmes, Dean Mumm, Ben McCalman, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Kurtley Beale.