James O'Connor came off the bench against the Pumas. Picture: Getty
James O'Connor came off the bench against the Pumas. Picture: Getty

Wallabies’ huge O’Connor gamble for Bledisloe I

The Wallabies will gamble on redemption man James O'Connor at outside centre in the opening Bledisloe Cup Test against the All Blacks on Saturday.

In a shock backline reshuffle, O'Connor is set to wear the No. 13 jersey for the first time in his international career, partnering Samu Kerevi in a midfield pairing expected to switch roles throughout the game in Perth.

O'Connor will replace Tevita Kuridrani, who will be dropped from the squad altogether, while Nic White has again taken the starting halfback spot over Will Genia, and Christian Lealiifano remains the five-eighth after a strong performance last start against Argentina.

There will be surprises in the front row as well when coach Michael Cheika announces his team this morning, with Tolu Latu to start at hooker and tighthead prop Allan Alaalatoa slotting into the starting team.

O'Connor, who came off the bench a fortnight ago against Argentina for his first Test in six years, has played a number of backline roles for Australia and at club level, but the difficult defensive role at outside centre is relatively unfamiliar to him.

 

Will Genia has been benched for Nic White. Picture: AAP
Will Genia has been benched for Nic White. Picture: AAP

 

The 29-year-old did start there for English club Sale at times last season, but is more comfortable in the playmaking positions of five-eighth and inside centre, or fullback and wing.

The Daily Telegraph understands that while O'Connor will defend at outside centre, he will spend time attacking from inside centre, with Kerevi shifting one out when the Wallabies have the ball.

With White's sharp passing and Lealiifano's game control, the new centre dynamic and Kurtley Beale's unpredictability from fullback, the Wallabies should present the Kiwis with plenty to contend with in defence.

 

Bernard Foley’s continued absence from the team has raised some eyebrows. Picture: Getty
Bernard Foley’s continued absence from the team has raised some eyebrows. Picture: Getty

 

And while Australia's scrum dominated the Pumas a fortnight ago, Cheika and fellow selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O'Connor have decided to bring Brumbies player of the year Alaalatoa straight back into the starting side after an injury lay-off, while the volatile Latu is a surprise No. 2 ahead of Folau Fainga'a.

Latu's pilfering abilities will be handy against the All Blacks, but he must remain disciplined with New Zealand sure to target the fiery hooker as they have in previous games.

 

Sekope Kepu is another notable absentee. Picture: Getty
Sekope Kepu is another notable absentee. Picture: Getty

 

The demotion of Genia, dropping of veteran prop Sekope Kepu, and continued absence of five-eighth Bernard Foley and utility back Dane Haylett-Petty signal a change of direction for the Wallabies just three games before their World Cup campaign begins.

WALLABIES (likely): 15. Kurtley Beale 14. Marika Koroibete 13. James O'Connor 12. Samu Kerevi 11. Reece Hodge 10. Christian Lealiifano 9. Nic White 8. Isi Naisarani 7. Michael Hooper (captain) 6. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto 5. Rory Arnold 4. Izack Rodda 3. Allan Alaalatoa 2. Tolu Latu 1. Scott Sio.

Reserves: 16. Folau Fainga'a 17. James Slipper 18. Taniela Tupou 19. Adam Coleman 20. Luke Jones 21. Will Genia 22. Matt Toomua 23. Tom Banks.

 

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