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 the first Test against England on Saturday is a tough, fast, freewheeling outfit designed to run England ragged, snap Eddie Jones’s eight-game winning streak and reverse England’s 3-0 whitewash of 2016.
Brumbies lock Caderyn Neville has caught the headlines, set to debut at age 33 after being part of national squads since 2012. The 120kg, 2.02-metre tall journeyman who represented Australia in rowing at the Youth Olympics in 2006 and played his first game of rugby at age 21 has been named in the run-on side at last, after being overlooked by four Wallabies coaches across the past decade.
Neville will partner Darcy Swain as the new locking pair in the absence of the injured Izack Rodda and France-based Rory Arnold. Swain will call the lineout, an area England will fiercely contest as they kick long and often for the sidelines. Neville is a ball-in-hand weapon to split England up the middle, as is his back-up on the bench, Matt Philip, a workhorse who carts it up till the cows come home.
Waratah warhorse Michael Hooper will captain Australia in his 119th Test, partnering Melbourne Rebels three-Test sensation Rob Leota, and Brumby barnstormer Rob Valetini in a fast, combative back row designed to combat England at the collision and perhaps trigger the thunderous rolling maul 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 forward in 2022, and his duel with recalled Sydney-born No 8 Billy Vunipola will be an intriguing contest. Despite crossing the gainline on 125 carries in the 2022 Super season (the most of any player), Queensland’s Harry Wilson has been omitted as Pete Samu’s versatility wins him the gig and a 20th cap as the backup backrower in this first Test.
Up front, as dreaded, Taniela Tupou’s calf injury rules him out, with experienced Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa to start in the No 3 jersey. It’s a major blow for Rennie’s set piece in an area England will target, despite the absence of their own anchorman Kyle Sinckler. Angus Bell, just 21 but with 16 caps already, will start at loose-head prop, with Brumbies props Scott Sio and James Slipper to come off the bench. Waratah Dave Porecki, 29, makes his debut as hooker.
Behind the pack, Nic White is Rennie’s halfback again, a sure sign his kicking game will be crucial in a series widely expected to be fought in the air. Jake Gordon’s bigger frame and hot form for the revived NSW has won him the deputy half role over Tate McDermott. They will likely face the wily veteran Danny Care whose relationship at club level with Marcus Smith, Jones is desperate to replicate in this series.
In the backs, Rennie has given maverick 33-year-old Quade Cooper the keys to unlock the Wallabies’ attacking mojo. Having masterminded the victories over world champions South Africa in last year’s five-Test winning streak, Cooper’s fast hands and mercurial spirit could dismantle England’s structure. By trusting in his unique vision and 75-Tests of experience, Rennie sends a welcome message to long-suffering Wallabies fans: beating the old enemy is front of mind, World Cup plans come second.
That said, the decision to cut James O’Connor for young maestro Noah Lolesio on the bench shows Rennie wants the Brumbies fly-half to learn under Cooper’s wing ahead of his ascension in 2023. Outside Cooper will be fellow Japanese returnee Samu Kerevi who reignites his blockbusting 10/12 partnership with Len Ikitau as they fight English channel chargers Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell whose alchemy undid Australia last November, with winger Freddie Steward shooting off their hip.
On the wings, Wallabies matchwinner Marika Koriebete faces off with Joe Cokanasiga, England’s young 120kg flier back from knee injuries and three bouts of Covid. At the back Tom Banks has kept the No 15 jersey despite his move to Japan next year, with try-scoring machine Andrew Kellaway on the right wing. The side’s sole Reds player, prodigy Jordan Petaia returns to his utility back role from the bench, primed to fight the aerially-mobile Steward in the air.
“The whole squad has worked hard over the past fortnight for what’s going to be a tough three-Test series against a very good England side,” Rennie told media at Thursday’s announcement. “Earning their first caps is a proud occasion for David, Cadeyrn and their families, with both men taking a unique journey to realise their dream of wearing the Wallabies jersey.
“The honour of representing our country is a massive motivating factor and we’ll be doing everything we can to put in a performance that makes all Australians proud.”