Big names return for Sydney showdown
August 19, 2009
New Zealand's Dan Carter in relaxed mood ahead of his international return against Australia © Getty Images
This weekend's pivotal Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup clash between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney will witness the international return of two of the sport's biggest names.
The Wallabies welcome back flanker Rocky Elsom from a knee injury and will line up for his first appearance in the green and gold since the defeat to the All Blacks in Brisbane last year. Meanwhile, Dan Carter will complete his return from an Achilles injury by pulling on the All Blacks' No.10 shirt for the first time since the hammering of England at Twickenham last November.
Flanker George Smith will captain a new-look Australia in the absence of Stirling Mortlock who picked up a Tri-Nations-ending knee injury in his side's defeat to the Springboks last time out.
The side features a total of three changes from that which lost 29-17 to the Springboks in Cape Town. Adam Ashley-Cooper moves from fullback to centre, which allows the 19-year-old James O'Connor to make his first start in a Bledisloe Cup Test, after excelling at fullback coming off the bench in his last outing.
European Cup winner-Elsom makes his comeback to Australian colours on the blindside flank, having finally overcome the knee injury he brought back with him on his return to Australia. The presence of Elsom necessitates the third change, with Richard Brown being shifted from the side to the back of the scrum in place of Wycliff Palu.
Brown played his first eight Tests for Australia as a No.8, before being switched to the side of the scrum for the opening two matches of the Tri-Nations to accommodate the return from injury of Palu.
Elsom returned to Australia with the Barbarians at the end of May, but was unable to play due to bruising in his knee which has kept the 26-year-old on the sideline since. He was man of the match in Leinster's historic Heineken Cup win over Leicester at the end of the northern hemisphere season.
Saturday night will be his 41st Test, but his first since the deciding game of last year's Tri-Nations at Brisbane.
Elsewhere, Carter is set to renew his partnership with inside centre Luke McAlister for the first time since the All Blacks' painful exit from Rugby World Cup 2007 at the hands of France.
Coach Graham Henry predictably recalled Carter at fly-half and a training injury scare hasn't stopped McAlister being named alongside him as they bid to rescue their Tri-Nations campaign after back-to-back defeats to South Africa.
Ma'a Nonu and Rodney So'oialo felt the selectors' axe with McAlister coming in for Nonu and Kieran Read getting the nod at No.8. Fly-half Stephen Donald, who anchored the All Blacks' backline in their victory over Australia last month, drops to the bench alongside Nonu and So'oialo.
Carter and McAlister last combined in the fateful 18-20 quarter-final defeat to Les Bleus in Cardiff before McAlister took up a two-season deal with English Premiership side Sale. After a three-month lay-off due to knee surgery, he rejoined the All Blacks this year but struggled to recapture his form. His last test start was a scratchy performance at fly-half in the 27-6 win over Italy in June. McAlister, with 27 Test caps to his name, stated publicly on more than one occasion that No.12 was his preferred jersey.
Donald and Nonu were the five-eighths combination for the first three Tri-Nations Tests; the 22-16 win over the Wallabies in Auckland before dual defeats to the Springboks, by 19-28 in Bloemfontein and 19-31 in Durban.
McAlister's return coincides with Carter's long-awaited comeback for his first Test of 2009, and 60th in all. Carter impressed in Canterbury's win over Waikato at the weekend and slotted straight back at fly-half during training this week.
Read was rewarded for his strong start to the All Blacks' season with his fifth run-on appearance of the year as So'oialo paid the price for some recent indifferent form. The 58-Test veteran, who played 14 tests last year and captained the All Blacks in four of them - including the 19-34 defeat here a year ago - played strongly off the bench for Wellington at the weekend but hasn't had his usual impact in the black jersey.
In the other contentious selection, winger Joe Rokocoko retained his spot for a 58th Test ahead of Cory Jane after a two-try haul for Auckland against Northland, which followed a poor South African tour. Prop Owen Franks retains his spot at tight-head prop after a strong run-on debut in South Africa, amid an unchanged tight five.
With Piri Weepu (ankle) ruled out, Brendon Leonard fills the bench halfback's spot behind Jimmy Cowan, while Chiefs hooker Aled de Malmanche is set for his second Test appearance off the bench behind Andrew Hore.
Australia: James O'Connor (Western Force), Lachie Turner (NSW Waratahs), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies), Berrick Barnes (Queensland Reds), Drew Mitchell (Western Force), Matt Giteau (Western Force), Luke Burgess (NSW Waratahs), Richard Brown (Western Force), George Smith (Brumbies, captain), Rocky Elsom (Brumbies), Nathan Sharpe (Western Force), James Horwill (Queensland Reds), Al Baxter (NSW Waratahs), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs)
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau (NSW Waratahs), Ben Alexander (Brumbies), Dean Mumm (NSW Waratahs), David Pocock (Western Force), Will Genia (Queensland Reds), Ryan Cross (Western Force), Peter Hynes (Queensland Reds)
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina (Chiefs), Joe Rokocoko (Blues), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), Luke McAlister (Blues), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Chiefs), Daniel Carter (Crusaders), Jimmy Cowan (Crusaders), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Richie McCaw (Crusaders, captain), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Isaac Ross (Canterbury), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Owen Franks (Canterbury), Andrew Hore (Hurricanes), Tony Woodcock (Blues).
Replacements: Aled de Malmanche (Chiefs), John Afoa (Blues), Jason Eaton (Hurricanes), Rodney So'oialo (Hurricanes), Brendon Leonard (Chiefs), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Ma'a Nonu (Hurricanes).
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)