James Horwill replaced Rocky Elsom as Wallabies captain yesterday as coach Robbie Deans sprang a major surprise in announcing his 30-man squad for the World Cup.
Lock Horwill, who led the Queensland Reds to the Super rugby title this year, will become Australia’s 77th captain when he leads the Wallabies out against the All Blacks in Brisbane on Aug. 27, 13 days before the start of the World Cup.
Flanker Elsom captained the side for the 24th time in last weekend’s 14-9 Tri-Nations victory over South Africa in Durban, only his fifth match of a season heavily disrupted by injury.
“You got to do what you believe is right,” Deans told reporters at the squad announcement at Sydney airport. “Critically we believe it’s not just in the team’s interests but in Rocky’s best interests as well.”
“He’s working hard to get back to full fitness but this frees him up to concentrate on that. He’s clearly a really important member of not only the team but the leadership team,” Deans said.
The New Zealander has also gambled on a string of players returning from injury for his World Cup squad, but there was no place for 92-cap back Matt Giteau, who would have been considered indispensable two years ago.
Deans said the loss of the captaincy would not have been Elsom’s “preference” but the decision had been made easier by the 28-year-old’s reaction to the news.
“It was an impressive, spontaneous response, he just said ‘whatever is in the best interest of the team,’” Deans said.
“I think you’ll see an impressive Rocky Elsom in the next few weeks,” he added.
Elsom accepted the demotion with good grace, saying professional sport was “cut-throat.”
“It’s the way it goes. I mean, it’s in the nature of the sport. You’re always up for selection,” he said.
Giteau, 28, was dropped for the Tri-Nations after playing in the Wallabies’ 32-23 loss to Samoa last month — their first defeat to the Pacific island nation.
Deans was keen to emphasize that the twice world-player-of-the-year nominee would remain part of the “shadow squad” of players who would remain in training in case of injuries.
“There’s tough calls every time and there’s a number of good players that have been unlucky, but it’s a long road, there’s a long way to go,” he said.
“The likelihood of us needing someone beyond the existing group is high so obviously it’s a tough pill to swallow for players like Matt ... but the wheel turns,” he said.
Berrick Barnes, who offers similar options to Giteau at flyhalf and inside center and can also play at fullback, was included in the squad despite taking a break from rugby in June after suffering a series of concussions.
The absence of Giteau, who can also cover halfback, meant a place among the 13 backs for Nick Phipps as a third scrumhalf behind Will Genia and Luke Burgess, with Barnes likely to be second in line to Quade Cooper at flyhalf.
Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, prop James Slipper, No. 8 Wycliff Palu, center Rob Horne and winger Drew Mitchell all came through fitness tests on Wednesday to take their places in the squad but there was no spot for prop Ben Daley.
Among the 17 forwards was No. 8 Radike Samo, who played his first Test for Australia in seven years last week in Durban, after having his career resurrected at the Queensland Reds.
“I’m so proud of myself for making the squad,” the Fiji-born 35-year-old said.