Wallabies coach Robbie Deans named James O’Connor as his preferred playmaker in a 25-man squad to face the British and Irish Lions, while leaving the selection door open for the omitted Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale.
O’Connor, who’s started one Test for Australia in the pivotal No. 10 role, was the only player nominated at fly-half in yesterday’s roster, which also featured the selection of code-hopper Israel Folau among three rookies.
“We believe he caters for our need,” Deans said of O’Connor. “In the outings that he’s had, he’s just got the components that we’re looking for. He’s clearly a bloke who traumatizes defenses. He keeps the attack square, which provides opportunities for the channels around him.”
The 25 named yesterday will play two more rounds of Super Rugby before entering training camp from June 2 ahead of the Lions series starting 20 days later in Brisbane. Another six will be added to a final 31-man roster announced June 11, when the captain will also be appointed. That gives players including Cooper, Australia’s first-choice fly-half at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, time to earn a berth.
Cooper was left off the initial list as he tries to regain his Wallabies spot after last year describing the national team environment as “toxic” and criticizing its style of play under Deans. He’ll get a chance to force his way into the final 31-man squad when the Reds play the Lions on June 8, Deans said.
“We all know Quade’s history in the group,” Deans said yesterday at a news conference in Sydney. “I’ve selected him on 38 occasions. He’s had a lot of faith and support from me, that’s not an issue. To suggest otherwise is just nonsense. He will get the opportunity to play against the Lions. It’s a great opportunity for him to press his claims.”
Deans challenged Cooper to “defend in the front line” and “assert himself physically” in the Reds-Lions game.
“It’s an element you can’t avoid at Test level,” Deans added. “He’s got a great opportunity to do that and hopefully dent the Lions’ belief at the same playing for the Reds. Assertiveness is both ways in attack and defense. That’s what we would like to see in that outing.”
Beale, who played at fly-half during Australia’s tour to Europe last year, will be monitored over the coming weeks as he undergoes rehabilitation for alcohol and personal issues after being stood down indefinitely from rugby.
“The key thing is his welfare at this stage,” Deans said. “It’s taken a lot of courage to enter the process and it will be emotionally draining. He has, to some extent, been able to maintain his physical state but clearly it will be a watching brief. There’s no point second-guessing from a distance.”
Folau was selected as one of two full-backs in the squad after playing 12 Super Rugby games since joining the New South Wales Waratahs in December following stints in rugby league and Australian Rules football. The Australian Conference-leading ACT Brumbies provided the other two newcomers in inside-center Christian Leali’ifano and back-rower Ben Mowen.
Brumbies back-rower George Smith, 32, was unavailable after damaging a knee ligament in the loss to the Waratahs in Sydney two days ago, Deans said. The openside flanker, whose 110 Test appearances for Australia are the second most for a forward behind Nathan Sharpe, had been in line for a recall following a 3 1/2-year absence from the national squad after impressing during a loan spell with the Brumbies.
Waratahs hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will miss the series against the Lions, which only tour Australia every 12 years, after fracturing his arm two days ago, while Brumbies center Pat McCabe suffered a suspected knee ligament rupture, Deans said. Queensland Reds pair Liam Gill and Saia Fainga’a were the beneficiaries of the injuries to Smith and Polota-Nau.
The Brumbies said that Smith and McCabe will have tests on their knees today with the results available tomorrow.
The Lions, a combined team from the U.K. and Ireland, most recently visited Australia in 2001, when the Wallabies secured a 2-1 victory. The Lions haven’t won a Test series since beating South Africa in 1997.
The Australian Rugby Union said it expects about 30,000 Lions fans to travel to Australia for the nine-match tour, which is set to attract a total attendance of about 400,000.
As well as playing three Tests against the Wallabies on June 22, 29 and July 6, the Lions will face all five Australian Super Rugby teams and take on a Combined New South Wales-Queensland Country squad.
“Today is not the end of it for players who haven’t been named,” Deans said after the squad was announced. “It’s going to be a living document. There’s still scope for players to join this group.”
WALLABIES 25-MAN SQUAD: Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Nick Cummins, Dave Dennis, Saia Fainga’a, Israel Folau, Will Genia, Liam Gill, Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper, Rob Horne, James Horwill, Digby Ioane, Sekope Kepu, Christian Leali’ifano, Stephen Moore, Ben Mowen, James O’Connor, Wycliff Palu, Benn Robinson, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Sitaleki Timani, Joe Tomane.