Kurtley Beale (AFP)
Pretoria - A new flyhalf and two notable individual career milestones mark the Wallabies line-up named on Thursday for Saturday's fifth Test of the Rugby Championship.
Australia face South Africa at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in a game that could determine second spot in the inaugural Rugby Championship.
Former schoolboy star Kurtley Beale will play his 30th Test match, but his first at flyhalf, after being named in the No 10 jersey as the replacement for Quade Cooper, playing outside of his Melbourne Rebels team-mate Nick Phipps.
An Australian Schoolboys representative at flyhalf for three straight years as the star of the St Josephs (Sydney) first XV, Beale also cut his teeth in Super Rugby as a flyhalf for the Waratahs, before starring as a fullback after his long-awaited introduction to the Test arena at the end of 2009.
Australia will be led for the fourth time by Western Force second row Nathan Sharpe, who makes the 110th appearance of his 11-year Test career, since his debut against France in Melbourne in 2002.
In doing so, Sharpe levels with Australia’s premier former openside flank George Smith, as the country’s most capped forward. The 110-Test tally accumulated by the pair has been bettered only by Australia and the game’s most capped player, the ex-halfback and current Australian Rugby Union board member, George Gregan.
Up front, Waratahs front-rower Benn Robinson will become just the third prop, and the 36th Australian player overall, to feature in 50 Test matches.
Robinson, who led the Waratahs for the first time in Super Rugby earlier in the year, plays his 50th Test in South Africa after taking his maiden bow on the international stage in the Republic six years ago when he made his Wallaby debut at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg.
The absence of the injured Cooper is the only change to the Wallabies starting side from that which rallied from 13 points behind to beat Argentina 23-19 on the Gold Coast at the team’s most recent outing.
Waratahs second rower Kane Douglas, who made an impressive Test debut against Argentina, has retained his place, with Sitaleki Timani falling short in his bid to return from a hamstring strain. He was ruled out after not entirely satisfying team medical staff following a rehabilitation run yesterday.
Reds second-rower Rob Simmons comes in on a bench which features five forwards, while the evergreen Western Force scrumhalf Brett Sheehan is one of two back reserves, alongside Anthony Fainga’a.
Sheehan, who was recalled to the Wallabies when injury rubbed out Will Genia, played the last of his three Tests to date against South Africa at Johannesburg in 2008. All three of his previous Test appearances have been made on South African soil.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says that although this represents Beale’s first time in the Test No 10 jersey, he had long been viewed as an option in the position.
While yet to start a Test match as a flyhalf, Deans says that Beale had spent much of his international career as a playmaker operating from fullback anyway, and would not face any great change in his duties as a result of the positional switch.
The reigning John Eales Medal winner operated from the back, with Saturday’s fullback Berrick Barnes in the front line, when Australia beat Wales at Sydney in June; but Beale still finished the game with more touches from first receiver in the attacking line than had the selected flyhalf.
“The (jersey) number might be new but his role within the game won’t be,” Deans says of Beale.
“Although his season hasn’t been without challenge, Kurtley stepped up with his involvements on the Gold Coast, making a difference when he was on the field. He’s brought that enthusiasm forward with him since we’ve been in South Africa, has worked hard on the training track, and is excited about the opportunity ahead. He has good memories from some of his experiences over here.”
Both Beale and Barnes have worked at training this week with the former Springbok and now Wallaby kicking consultant, Braam van Straaten.
While Barnes, whom pleased but didn’t surprise Deans with his accomplished debut outing as a Test fullback against Argentina, will retain the lead-off goal-kicking duties; Beale reaffirmed his prowess with the boot by nailing the long range penalty goal which finally saw off Los Pumas at Skilled Park.
This followed his immortal after the siren penalty goal from halfway which secured Australia’s first victory on the South African highveld for 47 years on the team’s most recent visit to the South African heartland, at Bloemfontein, two years ago.
The Australian team named today features eight survivors from that memorable evening in the Free State: Beale, centres Adam Ashley-Cooper and Anthony Fainga’a, Barnes, Sharpe, Robinson, hooker Saia Fainga’a and prop James Slipper.
While the Wallabies have enjoyed the better of their relationship with the Springboks since that night, Deans warned that Saturday’s challenge at a ground where Australia has never won; would be the team’s toughest yet.
“They are proud men, and they don’t lose at Loftus very often,” Deans said of the Springboks.
“While they are coming off a tour which would have disappointed them, they were in both contests and will feel that they could have won on both occasions. That will only spur them on, as will the atmosphere which is always electric for Test matches in Pretoria.”
Deans also warned of the threat posed by the Springbok goal-kickers, even in the absence of the usual Bok sharpshooter, Morne Steyn, with his replacement Johan Goosen, inside centre Francois Steyn and halfback Ruan Pienaar all accomplished goal-kickers.
“Discipline is always key, but there’s no doubt about its importance when you play South Africa as they always have goal-kickers who can routinely kick goals anywhere on our side of halfway, or even from 60 metres at altitude in Francois’s case.”
While citing discipline and field position as key elements, Deans believes that playing at altitude shouldn’t be an imposition, both due to the belief gained from Australia’s success on its most recent visit to the highveld, but also after a good preparation which has allowed the squad nine days of preparation and acclimatisation in Johannesburg prior to kick-off.
15 Zane Kirchner, 14
Bryan Habana, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Francois Steyn/Jaco
Taute, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane
Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben
Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira
16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19
Marcell Coetzee, 20 Elton Jantjies, 21 Jaco Taute/Juan de Jongh, 22
15 Berrick Barnes, 14 Dominic Shipperley, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Nathan Sharpe (captain), 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson
Substitutes: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 James Slipper, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Scott Higginbotham, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Brett Sheehan, 22 Anthony Fainga'a