SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia coach Michael Cheika has named rugby league convert Curtis Rona on the wing and handed Kurtley Beale his first start at inside centre in his Wallabies team to play New Zealand in the Rugby Championship opener.
Rona, who impressed at Western Force in his first full season of Super Rugby, will line up on the left wing on Saturday after his provincial team mate Dane Haylett-Petty failed to recover sufficiently from a bicep injury.
“Dane was pretty close and hopefully he’ll be available for next week but he’s been carrying the injury since Super Rugby and we wanted to get it right before putting him back in,” Cheika told reporters on Thursday.
“There’s no way we would be picking (Rona) if we weren’t backing him 100 percent to do really well.”
Beale returns to the test side after a two-year injury-enforced absence with Cheika banking on his ability to link with fullback Israel Folau and flyhalf Bernard Foley in a backline that presents a genuine attacking threat to the world champions.
Hard-running outside centre Samu Kerevi also returns after missing the mid-year internationals and back end of the Super Rugby season with ankle and pectoral injuries.
“They’re genuine competitors, the both of them, they want to get into the opponents’ defensive line as much as they can,” Cheika said of his centre partnership.
“But like anything in this game, mate, it’s predicated on your forwards getting the job done. Getting us go-forward and playing with that physicality that allows them to get on the front foot.”
In the pack, Sean McMahon, normally an openside flanker, takes the number eight shirt from Lopeti Timani and will play in a mobile back row alongside blindside Ned Hanigan and captain Michael Hooper.
“He’s a good man to have on your team Sean McMahon, he loves to get stuck in and I’ve seen him really improve over the last four weeks and I’m looking forward to seeing him play,” Cheika added.
The towering second row combination of Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman is reunited, while erstwhile captain Stephen Moore takes back the starting hooker role from Tatafu Polota-Nau to win his 121st cap.
Australia have lost their last five matches against their trans-Tasman rivals going back to the 2015 World Cup final, Beale’s last match in the green and gold.
Rona, who was born in New Zealand before moving to Australia as a child, said his selection was likely to rule out a return to rugby league next year, even if the axing of the Force from Super Rugby means he will not be playing in Perth.
“I’m pretty confident I’ll be playing for an Australian rugby team,” he said.
Team: 15-Israel Folau, 14-Henry Speight, 13-Samu Kerevi, 12-Kurtley Beale, 11-Curtis Rona, 10-Bernard Foley, 9-Will Genia, 8-Sean McMahon, 7-Michael Hooper (captain), 6-Ned Hanigan, 5-Adam Coleman, 4-Rory Arnold, 3-Allan Alaalatoa, 2-Stephen Moore, 1-Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16-Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17-Tom Robertson, 18-Sekope Kepu, 19-Rob Simmons, 20-Lopeti Timani, 21-Nick Phipps, 22-Reece Hodge, 23-Tevita Kuridrani.
Editing by John O'Brien