Australian rugby embarks on a new era when Robbie Deans becomes the first foreign coach to take charge of the Wallabies in their opening international of the year against Ireland tomorrow.
The highly rated New Zealander, who coached the Canterbury Crusaders to five of their seven Super rugby championships last month, ushers in a new-look Wallabies, rebuilding after their early exit from last year’s World Cup.
There are five new faces in Deans’ first selection from John Connolly’s team that crashed 12-10 to England in the quarter-finals in Marseille last October, with two debutants in the starting XV — scrum-half Luke Burgess and winger Peter Hynes.
Deans has also opted for Cameron Shepherd at fullback, James Horwill to partner Nathan Sharpe in the lineout and tight-head Benn Robinson in the often maligned Australian front-row.
Two more players — former rugby league centre Ryan Cross and second-rower Dean Mumm — are likely to make their international debuts off the reserves bench.
More importantly, senior Wallabies are speaking of the galvanizing effect Deans is having in his short time with the team, unshackling them from an obsession with structured play and allowing them to make on-field decisions and back themselves.
Australia will likely be vulnerable in their first international outing of the season, a virtual work in progress, while the Irish are coming off a solid 21-11 loss to New Zealand in Wellington last weekend.
Ireland have not won in Australia since 1979 when Ollie Campbell kicked them to a 9-3 win in Sydney after winning 27-12 a fortnight before in Brisbane.
Deans said the match-hardened Irish represent a massive challenge for his underdone Wallabies.
“I was pretty impressed with the Irish [against the All Blacks], particularly their physicality,” he said yesterday.
“They’re a group that’s played a lot of rugby together and particularly in their respective units of up front and out the back,” Deans said.
Wallabies skipper Stirling Mortlock said he was excited about once again opposing Ireland and British Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll in a battle of two of the rugby world’s best outside centers.
“He’s a great player,” Mortlock said.
“You’ve certainly got to be on your game defensively. He’s a very enterprising attacking player and he’s a great defender,” he added.
O’Driscoll also has an abiding respect for the Wallabies.
“I’ve always said that I think the Australians are the best thinkers in the game and certainly when you’ve had a halfback pairing of [Stephen] Larkham and [George] Gregan, they were very smart and canny footballers,” he said. “There’s certain guys like [Matt] Giteau and [Stirling] Mortlock who are of that mould.”
Peter Stringer will extend his record as Ireland’s most-capped scrum-half with his 84th international appearance against Australia.
Stringer is one of two changes in the Irish lineup with Ulster hooker Rory Best selected to win his 24th cap ahead of Jerry Flannery.
The wily Stringer will give Australian rookie scrum-half Luke Burgess a testing debut.
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