Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: O'Connor will run backline

First-five one of three new faces in Deans' Wallaby side for opening duel with Lions.

James O'Connor has been anointed first five-eighths. Photo / Getty Images
James O'Connor has been anointed first five-eighths. Photo / Getty Images

James O'Connor will direct the Wallaby backline alongside three teammates making their international starts in Saturday's opening duel with the Lions.

Code convert Israel Folau will debut on the right wing, Christian Leali'ifano will be second five-eighths and Ben Mowen will be on the blindside as the trio of new faces in a revamped Wallaby group.

Anointing O'Connor as first five-eighths after overlooking Reds pivot Quade Cooper for the enlarged squad will fuel more state antagonism towards coach Robbie Deans.

The test side will be unveiled officially today but the Herald discovered decisions were settled last week and the group has been training together in camp north of Brisbane.

Deans has gone for a backline heavy on skilled playmakers but light on size except for Folau and Digby Ioane on the other wing.

Folau's selection is a rapid reward after his switch from AFL but his work for the Waratahs demanded he be in the mix. His bulk will be one physical counter to the expected Lions wings George North and Alex Cuthbert.

Troubled utility Kurtley Beale has been named on the bench as he continues his comeback from his drinking problems and little matchplay in the past few months.

Leali'ifano was in line to make his debut some time last season until he badly broke his ankle and missed the rest of the year. The injury still gives him trouble but his comeback form for the Brumbies demanded his inclusion.

He can play either five-eighths and filled in at midfield for the Brumbies as another test reserve, Pat McCabe, fought his way back from serious injury.

Will Genia, O'Connor, Leali'ifano and Berrick Barnes are playmakers who will pose all sorts of defensive questions if they get enough quality possession.

New cap Mowen will run the lineout calls as he has so strongly for the Brumbies. He will be one target along with captain James Horwill, Kane Douglas and perhaps Wycliff Palu.

The Wallaby front row has enormous test experience and is talked up as a good counter to the Lions. But there will be some doubts about the technical sharpness in the Wallaby pack, especially if the Suncorp Stadium surface is a little soft.

Most emphasis will be at the breakdown where injury has shorn the Wallabies of regular skipper David Pocock and the outstanding veteran George Smith.

There is a murmur Smith is running again and making a strong recovery from his strained knee and if things go pear-shaped on Saturday, he could be drafted in for test two in Melbourne.

In the meantime Michael Hooper will wear the No7 jersey in his personal confrontation with Lions skipper Sam Warburton.

"We will have to do our best not to give away penalties and get our interpretations right there," Hooper said yesterday.

The Wallabies were well rested after an arduous Super 15, they were matchfit and had worked hard on getting their detail sorted. They would be very familiar with the bulk of the Lions if they followed predictions and picked a core of Welsh players.

Wallabies

Berrick Barnes, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali'ifano, Digby Ioane, James O'Connor, Will Genia, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen, James Horwill (c), Kane Douglas, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Benn Robinson. Reserves: Kurtley Beale, Pat McCabe, Nick Phipps, Liam Gill, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Saia Fainga'a.

- NZ Herald

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