James O'Connor back in test fold for Australia vs All Blacks
PERTH, Australia (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 long 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 has to defend the World Cup 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."
It is the final Rugby Championship match for each team. Later Saturday, South Africa plays in Argentina, with a Springboks' win with bonus point clinching the Rugby Championship title.
Next weekend in Auckland, the Wallabies and All Blacks play the second Bledisloe Cup match. New Zealand has held the trophy since 2003.
Australia: Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge, Christian Leali'ifano, Nic White; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (captain), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Allan Ala'alatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio. Reserves: Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Tom Banks.
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Atu Moli, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd; T.J. Perenara, Ngani Laumape, George Bridge.