MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A rebooted Australia will hope to kick off the June internationals with a morale-boosting victory over Fiji in Melbourne on Saturday to turn the page on a disappointing 2016 and cut through the gloom of a dreary Super Rugby season.
The much-hyped British and Irish Lions tour in neighbouring New Zealand has threatened to drown out the Australian season-opener but Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has made a splash by dropping captain Stephen Moore and including two debutants in his starting 15.
Michael Hooper will wear the captain’s armband and Tatafu Polota-Nau will be starting hooker in place of Moore, who is expected to be included in the reserves when they are named on Friday for the match at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Moore’s demotion was not to be seen as a leadership change, Cheika said, but more a reward for Polota-Nau’s solid form in the front row at Perth-based Western Force.
Moore’s injection into the game off the bench might pose an awkward dynamic, however, as to whether it is the battle-scarred veteran or the 25-year-old Hooper who barks the instructions out on the field.
Cheika said he would leave it to the two of them to work it out.
“Moorey knows that leadership is a huge thing we want to build within the team as well,” Cheika told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.
“Experience is very important and Stephen’s got it. He’s still very highly competitive and Hoops is growing as a captain as well.”
Karmichael Hunt is another player Cheika lauded for his development and ultimately rewarded with a debut test cap and a spot in his starting 15.
The New Zealand-born 30-year-old carved out successful careers in top-flight rugby league and Australian Rules football prior to rugby union and will start at inside centre in place of injured Queensland Reds team mate Samu Kerevi.
Blindside flanker Ned Hanigan is the other debutant and completes a refurbished back row with Hooper and number eight Scott Higginbotham, who has been recalled to play his first test since the 2015 World Cup.
Following Australia’s run to the World Cup final in 2015, Cheika wasted no time in rebuilding his squad for the next tournament in Japan, and the re-jigged outfit were whitewashed by resurgent England and the All Blacks last year.
The struggles of Australia’s five Super Rugby teams, none of whom have beaten a single New Zealand opponent this season, has added to the gloom but the world number three Wallabies should be too strong for the 10th-ranked Fijians.
Fiji have long suffered from player drain to the richer rugby nations and John McKee’s side will line up against two of their erstwhile compatriots in winger Henry Speight and outside centre Tevita Kuridrani.
More Fiji-born players could come charging off the Wallabies bench.
“It’ll put a little bit of mental pressure on the Fijians playing for Australia,” New Zealander McKee said this week, throwing a psychological grenade at the Wallabies camp.
“They’re actually playing for Australia against their own country.”
McKee steered Fiji through an impressive World Cup campaign in Britain where they thrashed Uruguay and pushed Australia and Wales.
His match-day squad will include three uncapped players and some gold medal-winning flair from the national sevens squad, with locks Viliame Mata and Leone Nakarawa a part of the island nation’s first Olympic triumph at the Rio Games last year.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly