James Horwill will lead Australia’s bid for an unprecedented third Rugby World Cup title, replacing Rocky Elsom in a surprise move.
Second-rower Horwill, who captained the Queensland Reds to this year’s Super Rugby title, will skipper a 30-man squad including eight players who featured at the 2007 World Cup in France. Matt Giteau was among those omitted.
“I was initially very shocked,” Horwill, 26, said in a televised interview. “Now it’s had a couple of days to sink in I’m really thrilled and looking forward to the opportunity of leading my country.”
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said the change in leadership before the tournament begins next month in New Zealand had been made because Horwill was considered the player best equipped to handle the all-round responsibilities associated with the captaincy. Elsom had led Australia in its past 24 Tests following his appointment in 2009.
Deans said that taking the additional burdens of the captain’s role off Elsom would benefit the flanker, who had accepted his demotion because it was in the “best interests of the team.”
Elsom, who returned from hamstring and ankle injuries in the past five weeks, will remain in the Wallabies’ leadership group with Horwill, David Pocock and Will Genia.
“With his recent challenges with his injuries, he’s only just getting back to form,” Deans said of Elsom. “It just frees him up to really focus on his rugby. As he gets back to full fitness we expect big things from him.”
Elsom, 28, urged the players to give the new captain their full support.
“It can be a difficult job at times,” he said in televised comments. “You need everyone right behind you.”
Giteau, who was the most-experienced back in the Wallabies 40-man squad named at the start of the season, missed out as Deans and his selectors opted for Berrick Barnes as the backup fly-half and Nick Phipps as a third specialist scrum-half.
Giteau’s omission “is a surprise in terms of the balance of the squad,” former Wallabies hooker Brendan Cannon said in analyzing the picks on Fox Sports News. “He’s very versatile. He could have been a very valuable guy to make up the numbers.”
No. 8 Wycliff Palu, hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, winger Drew Mitchell and prop James Slipper were included even though they haven’t played a Test this year because of injuries. Barnes and center Rob Horne were chosen after recently making comebacks in club rugby.
Matt Hodgson’s omission means the squad doesn’t have specialist cover for first-choice openside flanker Pocock. Radike Samo, Scott Higginbotham and Ben McCalman were the other back-row forwards named in the squad.
Hodgson will join Giteau among the 12-man back-up pool should Australia need to replace injured players. Squad members injured prior to or during the World Cup can be replaced under tournament rules.
“They’ve had the background with us,” Deans said. “As such, they’re the guys we’ll be looking to should further playing resources be needed.”
Australia, the 1991 and 1999 champion, opens its World Cup campaign Sept. 11 against Italy in Auckland. It then faces Ireland, the U.S. and Russia in its other group stage matches at the 20-nation tournament.
AUSTRALIA WORLD CUP SQUAD: James Horwill (captain), Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Kurtley Beale, Luke Burgess, Quade Cooper, Rocky Elsom, Anthony Fainga’a, Saia Fainga’a, Will Genia, Scott Higginbotham, Rob Horne, Digby Ioane, Sekope Kepu, Salesi Ma’afu, Pat McCabe, Ben McCalman, Drew Mitchell, Stephen Moore, James O’Connor, Wycliff Palu, Nick Phipps, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Radike Samo, Nathan Sharpe, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Dan Vickerman.