rugby.com.au 23.Nov.2012Getty Images
Thirty-three-year-old Western Force halfback Brett Sheehan will start his first Test match, six years after his Test debut, after today being named in the Wallabies side that will tackle Italy in Florence on Saturday [kick-off: 1am, Sunday morning, AEDST].
Sheehan will earn his seventh cap but maiden starting role by replacing Nick Phipps, who moves to a position on the bench as Wallabies coach Robbie Deans looks to freshen his playing group ahead of the team’s penultimate outing of a demanding 2012.
The other changes to the starting XV from that which regained the Cook Cup in London last weekend see Drew Mitchell swap roles with Digby Ioane, with the latter reverting to the bench after he returned from injury in a starting position at Twickenham.
Blindside flanker Scott Higginbotham returns from a two-game suspension, having joined the touring party last Saturday, while Stephen Moore gains his first start since the second Bledisloe Cup Test of the year in August, taking over from Tatafu Polota Nau who will provide impact off the bench.
Deans says the changes are designed to bring energy to the playing group as the Spring Tour moves into its third Test, while spreading the work load.
This is illustrated by the lightening of the playing duties for last weekend’s blindside flanker Dave Dennis and Polota Nau, who have been two of Australia’s busiest forwards in 2012 aside from skipper Nathan Sharpe – the only Qantas Wallaby to start in every Test of the year.
Dennis has figured in all 13 Tests to date, starting in eight of them, while Polota Nau has played all but two, and been in the starting line-up for each of his 11 appearances.
Deans says all four alterations to the starting combination from that which beat England 20-14 had been made to inject fresh momentum into the side, and could in no way be construed as being disrespectful towards this weekend’s opponents.
Mitchell and Moore both figured off the bench during last weekend’s success where Australia held England scoreless through the second period whilst over-turning a halftime deficit for the third time this year.
“It’s quite the reverse,” Deans says of the intent of the personnel changes.
“If you look at the men who are coming in, they are all seasoned Test players. Drew [Mitchell] is one of the most experienced Test wingers in Australian history; Stephen Moore is our most capped hooker, while Scott [Higginbotham] was the Test incumbent in his position until the suspension.
“No one should doubt the impact that Brett Sheehan has made since he has joined the squad either. Nick [Phipps] did well last weekend against England and he is still in a position to contribute this weekend but Brett has worked hard and has earned this opportunity.”
While New Zealand maintained its unbeaten record against Italy last weekend in Rome, the 42-10 score-line at the Olympic Stadium belied the contribution that the Six Nations side made to the contest, which only blew out on the scoreboard in the final quarter.
“They are not the first side to have suffered in that manner against the All Blacks,” Deans noted.
“If you look at the game in its entirety as I’m sure Jacques [Italy coach, Jacques Brunel] will have done, there was a lot of good in it for them. I’ve no doubt they will be looking forward to another opportunity this weekend.
“It has been a notable feature of recent performances that the Italians are looking to play with a bit more width and use the ball more, expanding on their usual strength in the physical exchanges.”
Strong at the set-piece, Italy has traditionally troubled Australia, most recently in last year’s Rugby World Cup tie between the two nations, where the Qantas Wallabies required a strong second half to shake off the Azzurri in a 32-6 victory at North Harbour Stadium.
The Qantas Wallabies are appearing in Florence for the second time, having visited two years ago when a 32-14 win was sealed by a late try from then skipper Rocky Elsom.
Fullback Berrick Barnes, who contributed 22 points from inside centre on that occasion, again handles the goal-kicking duties after last weekend having surpassed a century of Test points in a single season for the first time.
The 15 points Barnes accumulated against England took his tally to 102 from 11 appearances in gold for the year. Prior to this year, Barnes had totalled 83 points across his first five years as a Test player.
Barnes heads into Saturday having kicked 34 goals from 42 attempts (@ 81%), while his 13th minute dropped goal at Twickenham was the seventh of his career, tying the ex-Wallaby captain Mark Ella for the third most kicked by an Australian in Tests.
The Qantas Wallabies team to play Italy at the Stade Artemio in Florence on Saturday (kick-off: 3pm local time, 1am AEDST) is:
15. Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs)
14. Nick Cummins (Western Force)
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs)
12. Ben Tapuai (Queensland Reds)
11. Drew Mitchell (NSW Waratahs)
10. Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels)
9. Brett Sheehan (Western Force)
8. Wycliff Palu (NSW Waratahs)
7. Michael Hooper (NSW Waratahs)
6. Scott Higginbotham (Melbourne Rebels)
5. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force, captain)
4. Sitaleki Timani (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
1. Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs)
Run on Reserves:
16. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
17. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
18. Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs)
19. Dave Dennis (NSW Waratahs)
20. Liam Gill (Queensland Reds)
21. Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels)
22. Mike Harris (Queensland Reds)
23. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)