JOHANNESBURG, July 17 (Reuters) - Christian Lealiifano expects Australia coach Michael Cheika to select his strongest team for the Rugby Championship opener against an undermanned South Africa at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The Springboks have split their squad for the first two matches of the competition, with an advanced party of mostly first-choice players being sent to New Zealand this week ahead of their clash with the All Blacks in Wellington on July 17.
But Lealiifano, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016, expects Cheika to unleash his best team at Ellis Park as Australia seek a first victory in South Africa since 2011.
“We will pick as strong a team as we can with the best combinations,” Lealiifano told reporters. “We want a performance we are proud of.
“What excites me about the week is the work the boys have put in. The connections are starting to build. Its been nice to bounce ideas off each other and build combinations.”
Lealiifano said they will also not be lulled into a false sense of security in facing an under-strength Springboks team.
“They are quality, no matter who they put out,” he said.
“They have proven that down the years. They are always a tough competitor, especially on their home ground. We will try and match that by putting out a quality side.”
Lealiifano, who returned to the field in 2017, said he had doubted whether he would ever play rugby again, let alone pull on the Australia jersey, but his Super Rugby form has made him an easy pick for Cheika.
“I never thought it would happen again. Just to play footie is one thing, but to be back in the squad, I am grateful,” he said.
“They haven’t picked me just because I am healthy again, they have picked me on form and the way I have been playing. I’m proud of that, its come off the back of some really hard work.”
While he can also play in the midfield, all his focus in training has been on the number 10 jersey, where he is up against Bernard Foley for a starting berth.
“I have just trained at 10 and am getting my head around the way we want to play this year and moving forward.”
Lealiifano also welcomed the return to the squad of utility back James O’Connor, six years after he was sacked by Rugby Australia for various off-field incidents.
“He has been awesome, the way he has gone about his business here has been very professional,” Lealiifano said.
“He has tried to make connections with guys he hasn’t really known well.”
Cheika is due to announce his match-day 23 on Thursday. (Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)