Australia captain Michael Hooper cleared for first Bledisloe Cup test


Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has been cleared to play in Saturday’s first Bledisloe Cup test against New Zealand.

Hooper, who signed a new five-year contract with Rugby Australia this week, has been sidelined for seven weeks with a hamstring injury suffered in the first test against Ireland in June.

But the 26-year-old flanker has passed a fitness test and been included in Australia’s reduced 28-man squad for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship opener. Prop Scott Sio has also been named after recovering from a shoulder injury.

The squad, reduced from 36 players, includes uncapped backs Tom Banks and Jack Maddocks.

Waratahs outside back Curtis Rona has been omitted from the squad, raising the possibility Reece Hodge will start at center unless Israel Folau is moved to that position from fullback.

Also omitted were forwards Folau Faingaa, Jermaine Ainsley, Rory Arnold, and Caleb Timu and backs Billy Meakes, Jordan Petaia and Sefa Naivalu.

The Wallabies have just completed a weeklong camp at Cessnock in New South Wales and are due to reassemble in Sydney on Sunday.

“We’ll have some extra players in there on Monday and Tuesday so we can get our training done and then I just think that I want to have a bit more focus on the group that’s going to play the game,” coach Michael Cheika said. “I want the guys that are not playing in that given week to go and play some footy, whether it be club or NRC depending on the time of year.

“I just think that little bit of extra focus on a smaller group of players in there can build our alignment and cohesion. Everyone’s focused on the task. Everyone knows what their role is.”

Flyhalf Matt Toomua, a surprise inclusion in the initial squad, has also made the cut and might start on the bench on Saturday.

The All Blacks flew out of New Zealand for Sydney Sunday, leaving behind center Sonny Bill Williams and winger Nehe Milner Skudder.

Williams is expected to miss the first two matches of the Bledisloe Cup series as he continues his recovery from a shoulder injury while Milner-Skudder may play in New Zealand’s national championship as he also returns from injury.

Hooker Dane Coles, who hasn’t played since November last year because of knee and calf injuries, will be with the team in Sydney.

New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said his players had to focus on winning the trophy, rather than simply retaining it.

“Your mindset’s got to be . . . it’s not yours just because you won it in the past,” he said. “It’s something you’ve got to go and take every time.”