Australia have picked James O'Connor at fly-half for Saturday's opening Test against the British and Irish Lions at Suncorp Stadium with Kurtley Beale included on the bench. The starting XV picked by coach Robbie Deans features three debutants in full-back Israel Folau, flanker Ben Mowen and inside centre Christian Lealiifano.
Folau is competing in his first season in professional rugby union, having already represented Australia at rugby league and played in the AFL. He has been in stunning form at full-back for the NSW Waratahs, but has been chosen on the right wing by the Wallabies with Digby Ioane lining up on the opposite flank.
With Beale deemed not ready to start against the Lions following his return from alcohol-related problems, Deans has opted for O'Connor at fly-half with Berrick Barnes taking the No 15 jersey. It will be only the second time O'Connor has played a Test at 10, with the other appearance taking place alongside Will Genia against Wales in 2011.
Scrum-half Genia and the selection of Adam Ashley-Cooper were the two certainties in the Wallaby back line, with the presence of Lealiifano one of the main talking points in the build-up to last night's team announcement. The 25-year-old playmaker also features at fly-half for the ACT Brumbies and has edged the more defensive Pat McCabe to form a centre partnership with Ashley-Cooper. Lealiifano's inclusion indicates the Wallabies are seeking to play a more expansive game against the Lions.
Meanwhile, if Warren Gatland and his tourists achieve their hearts' desire over the next two and a half weeks and leave the Australian rugby nation with the unpleasant task of clearing up some Wallaby roadkill, they will celebrate the expertise of their medical staff every bit as much as the goal-kicking of Leigh Halfpenny or the midfield artistry of Jonathan Sexton. If the doctors and conditioners are not quite as central to this operation as the players themselves, it is a mighty close-run thing.
This much became clear when Rob Howley revealed that the Welsh wing George North, one of the heaviest pieces of attacking artillery in the Lions' armoury, had been passed fit for this weekend's opening Test at the Suncorp Stadium – the nearest thing to a union bear pit this country has to offer. The look on the face of the attack coach, who knows what it is to miss out on such an occasion through injury, was a picture of relief, bordering on outright joy.
Since North suffered a hamstring strain in the non-contest with the Combined Country XV in Newcastle a little over a week ago, he has had his prospects of an early recovery rubbished by all and sundry – not least by Gatland himself. Only a few days ago, the head coach rated North's chances of challenging for a place in Saturday's game as "less than 50 per cent".
The doctors begged to differ and the story was very different when the Lions arrived in Brisbane. "George was up early today, came through his fitness test… and I've never seen him in better shape in all the time I've been working with him," said Howley, the former Wales half-back who was invalided out of the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa after suffering a shoulder injury a week before the first meeting with the Springboks. "It's a massive boost for us. His whole focus has been on getting himself right and you have to admire his diligence.
"Even in the last five or six years, the quality of the medical and conditioning work – the sports science side of the game – has improved to an unbelievable degree. We have so much data available to us now we can monitor with great precision what people are doing in the course of recovery and manage them appropriately. If a player picked up a grade one hamstring strain on previous tours, that might have been it for him. Now we're in a position to make informed decisions that helps us keep people involved."
North is not the only high-calibre wing to have made rapid strides from an injury that threatened to stop him taking any strides at all. The Wallabies were equally happy with the progress of Ioane, who stayed at the team camp on the Sunshine Coast after surgery on a damaged knee and returned to full training a couple of days ago.
Howley went to great pains to play down the potential morale-deadening effect of the Brumbies defeat, even though it is now widely assumed that the vast majority of those involved in a dire first-half performance are a very long way off a Test spot. "To see the camaraderie in the dressing room afterwards between those who had played and those who hadn't was heartening," he said. "Our pride has been hurt – we are disappointed and frustrated at losing – but sometimes a loss gets you on edge. On Lions tours, I've seen a midweek side put the Saturday team back on track. It's up to the team selected for this weekend to put the midweekers back on track.
"A big part of our momentum on this tour has come from our physicality. In Canberra, we came up short."
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