O'Connor, Salakaia-Loto return from injury as Rennie names Wallabies team for Tri Nations finale

Thu, 03/12/2020, 12:45 am
Christy Doran
by Christy Doran
James O'Connor is back in the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies. Photo: Getty Images
James O'Connor is back in the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies. Photo: Getty Images

The Pumas might be in crisis following social media revelations that have seen Pablo Matera sacked as captain, but Wallabies coach Dave Rennie is not taking any chances and has named his strongest and most experienced side possible for their final Tri Nations Test at Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta.

Instead of opting for youth, Rennie has rushed back fit-again fly-half James O'Connor, which has seen makeshift 10 Reece Hodge shifted to fullback as the Wallabies seek to win their final Test of the year for the first time since 2013.

“It’s great to have James back in the team this weekend, he brings a lot of experience to a young group and has been working really hard to get his body right to be able to get back on the field," Rennie said in a Wallabies team statement.

“Reece has done a great job for us at number 10 over the past two games and we’re confident he’ll put in another good performance for us on Saturday night from fullback."

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O'Connor is one of three changes to the starting side from the one that drew with the Pumas in Newcastle a fortnight ago, with Hodge picked at fullback ahead of Tom Banks who drops to the bench.

The decision to start Hodge in the No.15 jersey means the 26-year-old joins Mat Rogers as the most versatile Wallabies backs in history, having worn every jersey in the backline bar halfback.

Up front, Allan Alaalatoa swaps once again with tight-head prop Taniela Tupou.

On the bench, there are two newcomers with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto also returning from a foot injury to replace loose-forward Liam Wright, while Irae Simone replaces his Brumbies teammate Noah Lolesio.

But it's the return of O'Connor at fly-half which is most intriguing.

Hodge was always considered a makeshift fly-half, but his solid and composed display at fly-half during their Bledisloe Cup win in Brisbane against the All Blacks saw him retained against the Pumas.

Yet, Hodge’s lateral running and inexperience of controlling a Test came home to roost against the Pumas as the Wallabies failed to close out a match they should not have drawn.

It’s why Rennie hasn’t hesitated in recalling O’Connor at the first available time, with the 30-year-old now fit from separate leg and foot injuries.

"One thing about James is his ability to play really square and play on top of defences is excellent," Rennie told The Rugby Nation.

"When you look at Hodgey, I think he’s gone really well at 10, he’s been a little lateral though and that’s not easy when you’ve come from playing everywhere else but 10, but I think he’s made a pretty good fist of it.

"But what we know with Rabs (O'Connor) is he’ll ask a lot of questions of the defences and they won’t be able to push off as the Argentinians have been able to do in most Tests. They’ve defended really well - you’ve got to play on top of them."

Lolesio is the unlucky man to miss out because of O'Connor's return.

The 20-year-old was given first crack to fill O'Connor's shoes in Sydney, but the Wallabies were smashed and Lolesio had an unhappy debut.

But the talented playmaker, who was awarded player of the match in the Brumbies' Super Rugby Au triumph in September, responded with an encouraging cameo off the bench during the Wallabies' victory over the All Blacks a week later.

Yet, for the second time in five Tests, Rennie opted not to bring Lolesio off the bench against the Pumas.

The decision to hold him back as been reflected generally across the entire squad.

Fraser McReight - the Junior Wallabies captain, who is considered Michael Hooper's heir apparent - excelled on debut off the bench in Sydney last month, but hasn't been given another chance despite the Tri Nations trophy all but guaranteed to end on New Zealand soil following their bonus-point 38-0 win over the Pumas last weekend.

The Wallabies must beat the Pumas by 101 points to wrestle the trophy back from the All Blacks.

But given the Wallabies have only once racked up a century - in 2003 against Namibia - the chances of that seem more remote than Michael Cheika returning as Australian coach.

“The side has worked really hard over the last 10 weeks or so and built a strong connection and I know as a full squad we are really keen to put together a performance that reflects that," Rennie said.

The Pumas were earlier this week rocked by the announcement that Matera had been sacked as captain following the revelation of xenophobic social media activity between 2011 to 2013.

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The blindside flanker, who went viral less than a fortnight ago after giving his jersey away to a Pumas fan, is expected to miss the Test.

His teammates Guido Petti and Santiago Socino are also expected to miss the Tri Nations finale for their social media activity too.

The Pumas, who didn't train on Tuesday because of the explosive revelations, will name their squad on Thursday afternoon.

The Wallabies will wear their Indigenous jersey for the second time in 2020 in the Test.

WALLABIES (1-15): Scott Sio, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons, Matt Philip, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper (c), Harry Wilson, Nic White, James O'Connor, Marika Koroibete, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Tom Wright, Reece Hodge

Reserves: Folau Fainga'a, Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rob Valetini, Jake Gordon, Irae Simone, Tom Banks

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