Rugby

James O'Connor returns to Wallabies' starting lineup for first time in test match since 2013

AP

Australia coach Michael Cheika has made four changes to his starting side for Saturday’s Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match against New Zealand, including giving utility James O’Connor his first test start since 2013.

It also marks O’Connor’s first start in the centers following a 45-test international career that has covered nearly every position in the backline. He returns after bad behavior, including alcohol and drug incidents, saw him fall out of favor with the national team.

In other changes announced Thursday, Allan Ala’alatoa will play a test for the first time this year. Ala’alatoa is joined in the front row by hooker Tolu Latu with Folau Fainga’a shifting to the reserves while Nic White partners Christian Lealiifano in the halves. It will be the first test start for White and Leali’ifano as a halves pairing but the combination has a history following several seasons as chief playmakers at the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby.

For New Zealand, Ardie Savea will start a test for the first time on the blindside flank while Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown will combine in midfield.

Out-of-form captain Kieran Read has held his place at No. 8, meaning Savea — New Zealand’s best loose forward at present — has to take on an unaccustomed role to be accommodated in the All Blacks starting lineup. The selectors have continued shuffling of midfield roles in naming Lienert-Brown at inside center and Goodhue at outside center with specialist inside center Ngani Laumape on the bench.

Dane Coles returns to the starting lineup at hooker, displacing Codie Taylor who drops to the bench. Coles was New Zealand’s No. 1 rake until injuries sidelined him for almost a year, allowing Taylor to take over the starting role. Aaron Smith also makes a return at scrumhalf, forcing T.J. Perenara to the bench. Richie Mo’unga will start at flyhalf and Beauden Barrett at fullback for the second consecutive test in what is now likely to be the All Blacks’ preferred World Cup combination.

The All Blacks have been in indifferent form this season, struggling to a 20-16 win over Argentina and drawing 16-16 with South Africa. The team announced Thursday suggests continued uncertainty among the selectors over several combinations, a concern with only three matches remaining before New Zealand begins defense of its 2015 title in Japan.

“With the extra time together, we’re starting to see an improved clarity of roles out on the training park,” head coach Steve Hansen said. “We’ll need to take the confidence that comes with that clarity into the test on Saturday and deliver a game which has high energy, high skill and great decision-making.”

Springboks face Argentina

South Africa has changed its entire front row as the Springboks seek a bonus-point win in Argentina on Saturday that would clinch its first Rugby Championship title.

Props Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane and hooker Bongi Mbonambi have been promoted with Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and hooker Malcolm Marx sent to the reserves.

The changes for the Salta test are the continuation of a rotational system with Mtawarira, Mbonambi and Nyakane starting in a 35-17 win over Australia in Johannesburg. Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe began the drawn test away to defending World Cup champion New Zealand the following weekend.

There are no other alterations to the match-day 23 as the Springboks seek to win a competition that has been dominated by New Zealand with six titles and Australia one.

“This test is a good opportunity for Bongi and Trevor to start next to the Beast, who has a wealth of experience from playing more than 100 tests,” said coach Rassie Erasmus.

“We all know about the massively difficult forward threat of Argentina. However, they are also a clever side with skill and pace out wide so we will have to be alert on defense right until the final whistle.”

The Springboks have lost two of their last three Rugby Championship matches away to Argentina, who are trying to snap a seven-Test losing streak.

“We have great respect for Argentina because after bearing them in Durban last year we came here and they gave us a good hiding,” said Erasmus, referring to a 13-point defeat in Mendoza.

“The match in Salta is going to be very difficult, but we must beat Argentina to win the Rugby Championship for the first time.

“I have never been to Salta so the coaches and players who went there in previous seasons have briefed me. It seems to be a tough place to leave with a victory.”

Pumas veteran Agustin Creevy, meanwhile, returns to the Argentina side for the match against the Springboks.

Creevy missed Argentina’s 16-10 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane with a shoulder injury but will slot back into the starting side this week. His return pushes Julian Montoya to the bench against South Africa.

Coach Mario Ledesma has rotated his second rowers with Matias Alemanno and Marcos Kremer, taking the place of Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini, while flanker Javier Ortega Desio returns to the starting side.

In the backs, Emiliano Boffelli will play fullback, pushing Joaquin Tuculet to the bench in the only change to the starting backline.

Information from AFP-Jiji added