Wallaby coach Robbie Deans will go into Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal in an extremely confident mood after naming his strongest available side to face the Springboks in Wellington.
Deans has seen the injury worries disappear as he welcomed back dangerous backline players Kurtley Beale, Digby Ioane and Pat McCabe into the starting line-up as part of a number of changes to the team that beat Russia 68-22 in Nelson a week ago.
Beale returns to the fullback position in the place of injured Drew Mitchell, who has since returned home, while James O’Connor is back on the right wing. Interestingly the hard-running McCabe comes into the midfield for Berrick Barnes, the latter who will come off the bench later in the game.
The decision to include McCabe, who prior to his injury earlier in the tournament, held the Wallaby jersey for seven consecutive tests shows that Deans wants some hard direct running, most probably at Morne Steyn’s channel.
Deans let slip that the idea with Barnes was to come off the bench late in the game should he be needed for a drop-goal or two to turn the match in the Aussies' favour.
Ioane moves into his favoured wing spot, where Radike Samo, who moonlighted on the wing against Russia, goes back to his more prominent No 8 role.
Samo’s return to the back of the scrum is one of five changes to their pack, as flanker Rocky Elsom, lock Dan Vickerman, tighthead prop Ben Alexander and loosehead prop Sekope Kepu all return to the side.
While Vickerman has been drafted in to help with the lineout calls, there must have been a strong case for Force captain Nathan Sharpe, who, as you may remember, gave Victor Matfield a torrid time in the Durban Tri-Nations test earlier this year.
“We’ve gone with the players and the combinations which have served us best through the year to date,” Deans explained about his selection.
“Obviously injury and managing individual work-loads has been a factor in selection through this tournament so far, but fortunately a lot of the injury problems that we’ve had are now behind us. The players that are coming back into the team after breaks are good to go.”
While the Wallabies do have a significant advantage over the Springboks over the past two years, Deans has played down their favourites tag, saying the Boks will be formidable opposition.
"All that matters is Sunday," the former All Black said. "The winner goes on, the loser goes home.
"Taking comfort from previous games is the quickest path way to the airport!
“The knockout phases of the World Cup are completely different to every other type of rugby we play: the stakes are higher, the intensity greater and the margins between success and failure smaller. We’ve seen that to some extent already in the tournament through the key pool matches and you can pretty much guarantee that it will all only intensify from here.”
Indeed, history has shown that the points differentials across games drops from 30 to 14 as teams move from Pool play to quarterfinals, and this weekend it is likely to be much closer.
“South Africa still have the core group from the last World Cup together. They know what it takes to be successful in knockout rugby and know how to close out the tight games,” Deans added.
“They’ve already shown that in this tournament when they came from behind to beat Wales by a point. They have a group which has the knowledge and belief that it can get things done. They will bring that mentality forward with them on Sunday. If we are going to earn the right to advance to the next round, we have to match it.”
Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Pat McCabe, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Radike Samo, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom, Dan Vickerman, James Horwill (capt), Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu.
Reserves: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Nathan Sharpe, Ben McCalman, Luke Burgess, Berrick Barnes, Anthony Fainga'a.