Quade Cooper was left out of Australia’s team for the opening Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand on Saturday, with Berrick Barnes retaining his place and Dave Dennis getting a start.
Cooper has missed Australia’s past five Tests since surgery for a knee injury suffered in the bronze medal showdown at last year’s Rugby World Cup, and missed out again, not even making the bench for the Bledisloe Cup match.
While the Queensland Reds star has played five Super 15 games since returning, coach Robbie Deans said he was not yet fit enough for international duty, but kept the door open.
“Anyone can play a Test, but how well is the thing. Quite obviously he isn’t at the top of his fitness yet,” Deans told reporters. “He has been training with us for two of the three weeks. He has had a couple of club games, which is good. He is working hard.”
“I’ve got no doubt he’ll get an opportunity again, absolutely,” he added.
Cooper’s omission allows Barnes, who was man of the match in consecutive Tests against Wales this year, to keep the No. 10 jersey as fly-half, working outside halfback and newly appointed vice captain Will Genia.
“Berrick played very well through June ... so it was pretty straightforward,” Deans said.
A second Test starting role for Dennis, a move from the side to the back of the scrum for Scott Higginbotham and a return to a starting midfield position for Anthony Faingaa represent the only changes to the starting line-up.
Higginbotham, who started at blindside flanker during Australia’s last outing, when they shaded Wales 20-19 in June, takes over from the injured Wycliff Palu at No. 8.
That opens the way for Dennis, who made his debut against Scotland in June and then came off the bench during all three Tests against Wales.
“He’s been great — he’s very consistent,” Deans said of Dennis.
Coming off two three-day training camps, Deans opted to run the same backline as in the final Test against Wales, aside from Faingaa slotting in for the injured Pat McCabe.
As well as Barnes and Genia, Kurtley Beale retains his position at fullback and will be supported by the versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper and Digby Ioane in the back three.
Up front, the New Zealand-schooled Sitaleki Timani gets a chance to test himself against the All Blacks pack, alongside Sekope Kepu.
David Pocock skippers the side as the Wallabies look to win a Bledisloe Cup series outright for the first time since 2001.
The Rugby Championship, which introduces Argentina for the first time to the annual southern hemisphere competition that also includes South Africa, runs over six weekends from Saturday to Oct. 6.