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By Qantas Wallabies Media Unit
Adam Ashley-Cooper and Wycliff Palu make their returns in the Qantas Wallabies starting side announced today for Saturday night’s Castrol EDGE Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane.
The inclusion of the pair, as replacements for the injured Digby Ioane (knee) and rested Radike Samo, are two of four changes to the starting XV from Australia’s most recent outing in Argentina 11 days ago.
Scott Higginbotham, who made a big impression after replacing Kane Douglas eight minutes into that match, retains his position on the blindside flank, with Sitaleki Timani remaining in the second row, where he moved to accommodate Higginbotham’s entry, after Douglas was sidelined by injury.
A key player for the Queensland Reds in recent seasons, Higginbotham posted his maiden Test try when last at Suncorp Stadium, during the 27-19 win over Six Nations champions Wales in June.
A change up front sees Benn Robinson and James Slipper swap roles, with Robinson returning to the run on side, while Slipper will provide fresh impetus from the bench.
As has been the case for much of the season, the Wallabies will run with a five-forward, two-back split amongst the substitutes, with Drew Mitchell returning on the bench after having made a remarkable recovery from an ankle injury sustained playing the All Blacks in Auckland.
The Queensland-raised but NSW-based winger, who has been dogged by injury through the last two seasons, was playing his 59th Test, but his first of the year when the mishap occurred.
Ironically he re-enters as a result of another injury with Dominic Shipperley, who was an un-used substitute in Argentina, being ruled out due to a wrist injury.
Fresh from his 20-point haul in the 25-19 win over Los Pumas at Rosario, Mike Harris retains both the fullback position and the goal-kicking duties, for what will be the former New Zealand Under-20 reps first Test against his nation of birth, but also his first Test at his Queensland Reds’ home ground.
Harris kicked seven from eight in testing circumstances against Argentina at Rosario last time out, showing the same composure under pressure which saw him kick the match-winning goal after the final siren when Australia beat Wales 25-23 at Melbourne in June. All up, the fifth player to appear at fullback for the Wallabies in 10 Tests this year has kicked 10 goals from 14 attempts.
Outside centre Ben Tapuai, who likewise impressed in Argentina, also plays his maiden Brisbane Test, having previously excelled for the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium.
The now 23-year-old made his debut off the bench against Wales in Cardiff last year, and has since overcome a mid-season shoulder injury to resume his international career in Rosario.
While injury has again impacted on selection, Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says the loss of Ioane until the Spring Tour, and the decision to rest Samo from the starting XV after his busy recent workload, has at least in part been compensated by the ability to replace the pair with experienced campaigners in Ashley-Cooper and Palu.
“They’re both proven Test performers so it is good to have them back,” Deans says.
“Adam has been cleared after the head knock he suffered in Pretoria. He brings with him all-round skill but also a lot of voice in terms of on-field communication, which will be important with a lot of younger players around him.”
Although he has also featured at fullback and centre this year, Ashley-Cooper ran from the wing in the third Test against Wales in Sydney, and also in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test of the year.
Palu featured in all three Tests against Wales in June before being forced to miss the entire Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship due to a shoulder nerve injury, suffered during the penultimate game of the NSW Waratahs season.
While deprived of match fitness due to the enforced break, Palu was able to train through much of his layoff, with Deans suggesting the big No 8 was “champing at the bit” to get started again.
Australia has two loose forward options on the bench – Dave Dennis and Liam Gill – while Timani started the Test against Argentina on the blindside flank, giving the Wallabies adequate cover should Palu’s lack of match fitness tell at any stage.
Australia beat New Zealand 25-20 when the two teams met at Brisbane last year in the deciding game of the last Tri-Nations, but the All Blacks have not lost a game since, winning both the 2011 Rugby World Cup and this year’s inaugural Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship in the interim.
The world champions arrive in Brisbane on Thursday night ranked number one on the IRB standings, and unbeaten in their last 16 matches, which includes three straight wins over the world’s second ranked side, Australia.
Australia terminated a similar All Black winning run two years ago, ending the 15-match unbeaten run by the New Zealanders through 2009 and 2010, with a last minute 26-24 success at Hong Kong.
While acknowledging the significance of the task ahead, Deans says the All Blacks’ unbeaten sequence won’t be a key focus for his side this week.
“It’s not so much about what has gone before, but what is to come, and what we make of the opportunity that we have,” he says.
“The All Blacks are the bench mark and proved it again through the Rugby Championship. They are a step up from where we’ve been, but the guys have shown a lot of resilience over the last two months, and they’re excited about the opportunity ahead of them on the weekend.”
Saturday night’s match will be the 112th in the Test career of Australian captain Nathan Sharpe.
While not now his career finale, after the 34-year-old last week agreed to participate in next month’s Spring Tour, it will be Sharpe’s final match on Australian soil, appropriately being played in the state where he plied his trade through the first eight years of his professional career.
The Qantas Wallabies team to play New Zealand in The Castrol EDGE Bledisloe Cup Test on Saturday at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane (kick-off: 8pm AEST, 9pm AEDST) is:
15. Mike Harris (Queensland Reds)
14. Nick Cummins (Western Force)
13. Ben Tapuai (Queensland Reds)
12. Pat McCabe (Brumbies)
11. Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs)
10. Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels)
9. Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels)
8. Wycliff Palu (NSW Waratahs)
7. Michael Hooper (Brumbies)
6. Scott Higginbotham (Queensland Reds)
5. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force, captain)
4. Sitaleki Timani (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
1. Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs)
Run on Reserves:
16. Saia Fainga’a (Queensland Reds)
17. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
18. Kane Douglas (NSW Waratahs)
19. Dave Dennis (NSW Waratahs)
20. Liam Gill (Queensland Reds)
21. Brett Sheehan (Western Force)
22. Drew Mitchell (NSW Waratahs)
Australia v New Zealand at Brisbane – Historical Notes
Suncorp Stadium – Background Notes