A golden oldie debutante, a front row firebrand, the return of the Rising Sun triangle, a dirty dozen Brumbies but no Tongan Thor and just one Red. Dave Rennie’s 23-man Wallabies squad for Saturday’s first Test against England is a tough, fast, freewheeling outfit designed to lead England into frays, break Eddie Jones’ eight-game winning streak and break England’s 3-0 whitewash of 2016 to reverse.
Brumbies lock Caderyn Neville has made headlines, debuting at the age of 33 after being part of the national squads since 2012. at age 21 has finally been called into the run-on side, having been overlooked by four Wallabies coaches over the past decade.
Neville will team up with Darcy Swain as the new locking couple in the absence of the injured Izack Rodda and France-based Rory Arnold. Swain will call the lineout, an area England will be fighting fiercely against as they kick long and often to the sidelines. Neville is a ball-in-hand weapon to split England in half, as is his bench backup, Matt Philip, a workhorse who carries it on until the cows come home.
Waratah warhorse Michael Hooper will captain Australia in his 119th Test, along with Melbourne Rebels three-Test sensation Rob Leota, and Brumby barnstormer Rob Valetini in a fast, combative back lane designed to fight England on impact and perhaps the thunderous rolling maul which is so successful this year for the ACT side, coached by Rennie’s new assistant Dan McKellar.
The exciting Valetini, 25, was arguably Super Rugby’s best striker in 2022, and his duel with the recalled Sydney-born No 8 Billy Vunipola is set to be an intriguing match. Despite crossing the win line at 125 carries in the 2022 Super season (the most of all players), Queensland’s Harry Wilson has been left out as Pete Samu’s versatility earns him the performance and a 20th cap as a backrower in this first Test.
Up front, as feared, Taniela Tupou’s calf injury rules him out, with veteran Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa starting in the No. 3 jersey. It’s a big blow to Rennie’s set piece in an area England will be targeting, despite the absence of their own presenter Kyle Sinckler. Angus Bell, just 21 but already 16 caps, starts at loose-head prop, with Brumbies props Scott Sio and James Slipper coming off the bench. Waratah Dave Porecki, 29, makes his whore debut.
Behind the pack, Nic White is again Rennie’s halfback, a sure sign that his trap game will be crucial in a series widely believed to be fought in the air. Jake Gordon’s bigger frame and hot form for the revived NSW have landed him the deputy half role of Tate McDermott. They’ll likely face the scheming veteran Danny Care whose club-level relationship with Marcus Smith, Jones desperately wants to replicate in this series.
In the back, Rennie has given the maverick 33-year-old Quade Cooper the keys to unlock the Wallabies’ attacking mojo. After masterminding victories over world champions South Africa in last year’s five-Test winning streak, Cooper’s quick hands and cheerful spirit were able to dismantle England’s fabric. Relying on his unique vision and 75 experience tests, Rennie sends a welcome message to long-suffering Wallabies fans: Defeating the old enemy comes first, World Cup plans come second.
That said, the decision to bench James O’Connor for young maestro Noah Lolesio shows that Rennie wants the Brumbies flight half to learn under Cooper’s wing before his ascension in 2023. Outside of Cooper will be fellow Japanese returnee Being Samu Kerevi rekindles his blockbusting 10/12 partnership with Len Ikitau as they battle England station chargers Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell whose alchemy undo Australia last November, with winger Freddie Steward firing from their hip.
On the wings, Wallabies match winner Marika Koriebete takes on Joe Cokanasiga, England’s young 120kg aviator who has come back from knee injuries and three Covid attacks. In the back, Tom Banks has retained the No. 15 jersey, despite his move to Japan next year, with try-scoring machine Andrew Kellaway on the right wing. The squad’s lone Reds player, child prodigy Jordan Petaia, returns to his role as the bench backup, ready to fight the airmobile Steward in the sky.
“The whole squad has been working hard over the past two weeks for what is going to be a tough three-Test series against a very good side of England,” Rennie told media in Thursday’s announcement. Earning their first caps is a proud occasion for David, Cadeyrn and their families, with both men embarking on a unique journey to fulfill their dream of wearing the Wallabies jersey.
“The honor to represent our country is a huge motivating factor and we will do everything we can to deliver an achievement that all Australians are proud of.”