SYDNEY (Reuters) – Versatile but controversial back James O’Connor completed his return from international exile on Thursday when he was named at outside centre for Australia’s Rugby Championship test against New Zealand in Perth.
Saturday’s game will be O’Connor’s first test start since he played against Argentina in the same city in 2013, after which he was escorted from Perth airport by police because of an altercation with airline staff.
O’Connor had his Rugby Australia contract torn up after that incident but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika brought him back into the green and gold as a replacement in the 16-10 victory over Argentina two weeks ago.
The 29-year-old, who as a teenager nervelessly slotted a conversion from the sidelines to give the Wallabies a win over the All Blacks in Hong Kong in 2010, has played along the Australia backline but never before in the number 13 shirt.
“I think James will present something different, something we haven’t seen, so something our opponents haven’t seen either,” Cheika told a news conference in Perth.
“He’s gone well in training and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there. I haven’t known him much but since he’s come into the squad, he’s made me have faith in him.”
His inclusion at the expense of the dropped Tevita Kuridrani was one of four changes made by Cheika for the first of back-to-back Bledisloe Cup tests against the world champions.
Cheika has also shown a forgiving nature by giving Tolu Latu the start at hooker in place of Folau Fainga’a only weeks after the New South Wales Waratahs rake was convicted of drunk driving.
Allan Alaalatoa comes in at tighthead prop for Sekope Kepu, who is dropped from the squad, in a new-look front row in which only Scott Sio has retained his spot.
Nic White returns at scrumhalf in a halves combination with his old ACT Brumbies team mate Christian Lealiifano but there is no place in the matchday squad for flyhalf Bernard Foley for the second test in a row.
Foley has been a fixture in the number 10 shirt for most of the last five years and although he would still be expected to travel to Japan for his third World Cup next month, his stock with selectors has clearly plummeted.
“It was tight but Christian did his job last weekend,” Cheika added.
“It was his first game back in international colours for a while. He distributed well, made his tackles, took his kicks at goal.”
Someone whose stock remains high despite a lack of gametime this year is loose forward David Pocock, who has been struggling with a calf injury.
Cheika said they had always been focused on getting him back for next week’s test in Auckland.
“He’s trained all week with the team now,” the coach said. “So he’s getting very close. I’m confident he’ll be available next week.”
Australia: 15-Kurtley Beale, 14-Reece Hodge, 13-James O’Connor, 12-Samu Kerevi, 11-Marika Koroibete, 10-Christian Lealiifano, 9-Nic White, 8-Isi Naisarani, 7-Michael Hooper (captain), 6-Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 5-Rory Arnold, 4-Izack Rodda, 3-Allan Alaalatoa, 2-Tolu Latu, 1-Scott Sio
Replacements: 16-Folau Fainga’a, 17-James Slipper, 18-Taniela Tupou, 19-Adam Coleman, 20-Luke Jones, 21-Will Genia, 22-Matt Toomua, 23-Tom Banks
(Reportying by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)