Australia recalled back-row forward George Smith after a near four-year absence for the series-deciding rugby Test against the British and Irish Lions.
Smith was named today ahead of Michael Hooper at openside flanker for the July 6 match at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium as the Wallabies seek their second straight series win against the Lions following a 2-1 victory 12 years ago.
The 32-year-old Smith, who joined the national squad last week after recovering from a knee injury, featured in all three matches of the 2001 contest against the combined team. His inclusion gives the Wallabies 110 Tests worth of experience and nous at the breakdown, an area both teams have identified as being crucial to the outcome.
“The first two games have been rugged, especially at the breakdown, and we feel that the combination of experience and fresh legs that George brings is the right way to go for this week,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said in a statement. “His expertise in the contact zone, where timing, judgment and physicality is everything, is going to be critical.”
Hooper, who started at No. 7 in the first two matches, drops to a bench featuring a six-two split between forwards and backs and the recall of back-rower Ben McCalman for his first Test since December 2011. Flanker Liam Gill, Australia’s Under-20s captain, dropped out of the 23-man matchday squad, while scrum-half Nick Phipps and full-back Jesse Mogg provide backline cover from the bench.
Smith, who made his Test debut in 2000, played his most recent match for Australia in November 2009. He quit international rugby in 2010 to play overseas, though earned a recall this year after impressing during a loan spell with the ACT Brumbies Super Rugby team from Japanese club Suntory.
By lining up against the Lions for the fourth time in a Test, Smith will tie a record held by seven other Australians. He’s the fourth Wallaby to do so across two separate tours and the first since the sport turned professional in 1995.
“To have longevity to play in consecutive series in Australia, I’m very pleased that I get that opportunity,” Smith told reporters. “Once it’s all done I’ll reflect on it and know the magnitude of it. At the moment it’s more about me focusing on what the job is at hand, and that’s winning this Saturday.”
Smith’s selection comes a day after the Lions pulled a surprise by omitting Brian O’Driscoll, their most-experienced player, as they seek a first series win in 16 years.
Ireland center O’Driscoll, the Lions’ only survivor from their 2001 tour of Australia, had been seen as the most likely replacement for injured captain Sam Warburton. Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones will lead the combined team in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 80,000 in Sydney.
O’Driscoll was dropped for the first time in his 15-year international rugby career as fit-again inside center Jamie Roberts was paired with fellow Welshman Jonathan Davies in midfield. England’s Manu Tuilagi provided backup on the bench.
“It would have been a fitting send-off for him but he’ll also have perspective,” Deans said of O’Driscoll. “From our perspective, it’s a little bit of experience gone and a little bit of excitement in terms of the emotion of the occasion. Those are decisions that aren’t made lightly.”
Australia sent the best-of-three contest into a decider by winning by a point in Melbourne after the Lions won the opener in Brisbane 23-21. Both of those matches featured late penalty misses that would have reversed the results.
AUSTRALIA: Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane, James O’Connor, Will Genia, Wycliff Palu, George Smith, Ben Mowen, James Horwill (captain), Kane Douglas, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Benn Robinson.
Reserves: Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps, Jesse Mogg.
BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips, Toby Faletau, Sean O’Brien, Dan Lydiate, Geoff Parling, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Alex Corbisiero.
Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi.
Editor: Dex McLuskey.