JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Australia have selected uncapped Melbourne Rebels number eight Isi Naisarani for the Rugby Championship opener against South Africa at Ellis Park on Saturday, but there is no place in the squad yet for the returning James O’Connor.
Fijian-born Naisarani, who moved to Australia five years ago, will pack down with captain Michael Hooper and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto at the back of the scrum and be given the chance to stake his claim for a place at the World Cup in Japan.
Prop James Slipper will play his first test since 2016, while scrumhalf Nic White also returns after he last featured against New Zealand four years ago.
White’s inclusion means 100-cap veteran Will Genia starts on the bench, along with prop Harry Johnson-Holmes, who will make his test debut if used after flying in late this week following injuries in training to Scott Sio and Tom Robertson.
Coach Michael Cheika has resisted the temptation to include utility back O’Connor following his return to the squad six years after having his Australian Rugby contract torn up for various off-field incidents.
O’Connor believes his best position is the number 12 jersey, currently occupied by the in-form Samu Kerevi, who will partner Tevita Kuridrani at centre for the first time in two years.
Bernard Foley will play at flyhalf in the injury absence of Christian Lealiifano, who has returned to Australia with a shoulder problem, dashing his hopes of a first cap in three years after recovering from a battle with cancer.
“This is an opportunity for our team. We really want to begin building momentum to take us towards our goals in 2019,” Cheika said in a Rugby Australia statement.
“We know we go into the game as heavy underdogs but most of the players have had a touch over three great weeks of training to prepare, so really they just can’t wait to get out and get into the battle.
“I’m feeling a lot belief and commitment from the people in this Wallaby squad. They’ve all invested a tonne of effort into our preparation and I know the 23 men selected to represent us all on Saturday will do us proud.”
Australia have not won in South Africa since 2011, and have not claimed victory at Ellis Park in the last 56 years.
15-Tom Banks, 14-Dane Haylett-Petty, 13-Tevita Kuridrani, 12-Samu Kerevi, 11-Reece Hodge, 10-Bernard Foley, 9-Nic White, 8-Isi Naisarani, 7-Michael Hooper (captain), 6-Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 5-Rory Arnold, 4-Izack Rodda, 3-Sekope Kepu, 2-Folau Fainga’a, 1-James Slipper
Replacements: 16-Jordan Uelese, 17-Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18-Taniela Tupou, 19-Rob Simmons, 20-Jack Dempsey, 21-Will Genia, 22-Matt To’omua, 23-Kurtley Beale.
(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)