The British and Irish Lions picked a prop who wasn’t in the original squad among eight Test newcomers for the combined team in its rugby series opener against Australia, which selected three rookies of its own.
Alex Corbisiero, who was only called up as a replacement for injured Irishman Cian Healy two weeks ago, will start at loosehead prop ahead of England teammate Mako Vunipola at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium in two days.
“Technically, Alex is probably a little bit sounder, and we feel we’ve potentially got a little bit of an edge there,” Lions head coach Warren Gatland said at a televised news conference. “Mako coming off the bench will give us a huge amount of impetus.”
Open-side flanker Sam Warburton, one of eight Welshmen in the starting lineup, will captain the Lions in a forward pack featuring Tom Youngs at hooker. In the backs, newcomers Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Sexton will be joined by scrum-half Mike Phillips and outside center Brian O’Driscoll, who will be playing his seventh Test for the Lions.
North, who leads the tourists on their 10-match trip in clean line breaks and meters gained, was yesterday passed fit after recovering from a tight hamstring. Injured centers Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi, and winger Tommy Bowe, were the only players not available for selection for the first of three matches against Australia, said Gatland, whose squad is seeking the Lions’ first Test series win since 1997.
“The boys who aren’t involved have been very supportive,” Warburton said. “They know there’s every chance they could get back into the Test team.”
The Wallabies, who rallied for a 2-1 victory when the teams last met in 2001, named code-switcher Israel Folau for his international rugby debut alongside Christian Leali’ifano and Ben Mowen. They’ll start at inside center and blind-side flanker, respectively.
Folau was picked on the right wing after playing 14 Super Rugby games at fullback since joining the New South Wales Waratahs in December following stints in rugby league and Australian Rules football.
“This time last year I was playing AFL so things have changed a lot in a short time,” Folau, who’s represented Australia’s rugby league team, said at a news conference. “It’s been a great journey for me so far. Saturday night’s going to be huge for me. I can’t wait to get out there.”
The Wallabies’ lineup features six starters from their most recent Test, a 14-12 win against Wales on Dec. 1, as players including captain James Horwill, scrum-half Will Genia and James O’Connor return from injury. O’Connor will start at fly-half for the second time in an elite Test, with Kurtley Beale on the replacements’ bench.
Leali’ifano’s inclusion ahead of the hard-running Pat McCabe gives Australia another ball player in midfield and adds a second kicking option alongside O’Connor, who has played most of his international rugby on the wing or at full-back.
“He’s a very well-rounded player,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said of Leali’ifano. “He opens up the edges of the field and he’s got a huge workrate defensively.”
Australia, which entered training camp on June 2 to prepare for the series, lost all six previous matches against the Lions in Brisbane. New Zealand is the only team to have beaten the Wallabies in the 21 Tests played at Suncorp Stadium.
The Lions 100 percent tour record ended in their sixth game two days ago with a 14-12 defeat to the ACT Brumbies.
“The result against the Brumbies on Tuesday night was a bit of a blip,” Gatland said. “But we feel very positive about where we are, we have a few hit-outs under our belts and that’s given us that match-hardened edge we’ve been looking for. Physically we feel in good shape and very fresh.”
BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips, Jamie Heaslip, Sam Warburton (captain), Tom Croft, Paul O’Connell, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Tom Youngs, Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland.
AUSTRALIA: Berrick Barnes, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Digby Ioane, James O’Connor, Will Genia, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen, James Horwill (captain), Kane Douglas, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Benn Robinson.
Replacements: Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Liam Gill, Nick Phipps, Pat McCabe, Kurtley Beale.