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All eyes on Pocock as Australia meet Samoa in World Cup warmup

All eyes on Pocock as Australia meet Samoa in World Cup warmup
FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - England v Australia - Twickenham Stadium, London, Britain - November 24, 2018 Australia head coach Michael Cheika during the warm up before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs -
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PAUL CHILDS(Reuters)
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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia head into their final World Cup warmup against Samoa in Sydney on Saturday with a safety-first mindset and seeking to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing slip-up to the Pacific islanders in their last clash in 2011.

Mindful of Samoa’s bruising defence and the risk of a disruptive injury or two, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has rested a slew of first-choice players while padding out the side with six who will not feature in Japan.

Of the World Cup squad lining up at Western Sydney Stadium, flanker David Pocock will be under the most scrutiny as he returns from a long lay-off with a calf injury.

In an encouraging sign, the master poacher will captain the side in the number seven jersey rather than ease into his first test in nearly a year from the bench.

Pocock trained at full intensity during the Wallabies’ camp in New Caledonia, Cheika said, but would be unlikely to play a full game.

“He’s got through everything on the camp, hasn’t had to be managed at all, so he’s ready to go, definitely,” Cheika told reporters at Sydney airport on Thursday.

Cheika would likely be happy just for Pocock to come through unscathed and enjoy a taste of test rugby before they head to Sapporo for their World Cup opener against Pool D rivals Fiji on Sept. 21.

A number of other players have points to prove, including the deposed halves duo of Will Genia and Bernard Foley.

Once expected to be among the first picked in Japan, the pair were demoted in favour of Nic White and Christian Lealiifano during the Rugby Championship and will hope to give Cheika second thoughts.

Others like outside back Dane Haylett-Petty, loose forward Jack Dempsey and young hooker Jordan Uelese will be grateful to play, having had little, if any, action since the end of the Super Rugby season.

“There’s a lot of players on this team that have got selection opportunities ahead of them for the first match (against Fiji),” Cheika said.

Centres Tevita Kuridrani and Jordan Petaia were not fit for selection, with the former carrying a hamstring “niggle” and the latter a more serious hamstring strain.

Cheika said Kuridrani would need a week to recover but uncapped teenager Petaia might not be available until the second World Cup match against Wales on Sept. 29.

The match will also be a farewell for a number of Wallabies veterans set to retire from internationals.

Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will play his last test, while Genia and 105-test prop Sekope Kepu play their last on Australian soil before hanging up their boots after Japan.

Samoa may prove more of a handful than their world number 16 ranking would suggest, and they will be eager to cause a similar boilover to the 32-23 upset of Robbie Deans’s Wallabies in the leadup to the 2011 World Cup.

The result caused shockwaves around the world, and a number of the Wallabies players who featured, including inside centre Matt Giteau, ended up missing out on a place in the squad that reached the semi-finals in New Zealand.

Samoa coach Jackson said he expected a “physical challenge” in western Sydney.

“It’s going to be tough – being Sekope Kepu’s last home game in a Wallaby jersey and the return of David Pocock,” he said.

“But if we are able play our brand of rugby then I’m confident we can get the result that we want.”

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)

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