Pocock returns for Wallabies
Pocock returns for WallabiesSHARE
Openside flank David Pocock will complete his return to on-field duties after being named to start in the Wallabies' year-ending Test against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.
Pocock led Australia to a three-nil clean sweep of the Grand Slam-winning Wales in June, but has not appeared since injuring his knee during the Wallabies' opening match of the inaugural Rugby Championship against the All Blacks at Sydney in August.
The 24-year-old was scheduled to make his return earlier in the year-end tour, but was held back after sustaining a mild calf strain at training prior to Australia's departure from Paris following the opening game of the tour.
Pocock's return allows the work load to be eased for star rookie Michael Hooper, who has performed exceptionally in the absence of his senior colleague.
Used off the bench against the Six Nations champions in June, Hooper ends his freshman Test season having started nine Tests consecutively prior to this weekend, where he will be injected into the game from the bench.
The high class 21-year-old fetcher has won the Australian team's internal Player of the Day award on four occasions from those nine starting appearances.
Pocock will not captain the Wallabies this weekend, with that honour remaining with Pocock's long-time Western Force and Wallaby colleague Nathan Sharpe as he plays his 116th and final Test.
Wallaby coach Robbie Deans says Pocock's return will provide the squad with fresh impetus – both physically and mentally.
"David is one of the best in the world as a player, and is growing every day as a leader, so naturally we are delighted to have him back," Deans says.
"While he has continued to contribute off the field, this tour has been one of frustration for him, but we were not prepared to take any risks and potentially compromise either the player or the team, in terms of his fitness. The upside to the wait is that his return comes at a time where we need fresh energy, as was evident at times during our Test in Italy last weekend."
Although Deans believes Pocock is capable of playing the full Test, pointing to the lengthy training background he had prior to the calf strain, the inclusion of Hooper in the matchday squad gives Australia the option of applying two openside flanks to the breakdown contest.
This is a tactic the Wallabies employed with success, when using the fetchers in tandem, during the June Tests against Wales.
"Michael [Hooper] has had a massive year and it was evident that for him, as well as some others, it was starting to take its toll last weekend," Deans says.
"He's earned the right to finish the year on the park. Having the option of working him alongside David at some point during the contest is a win-win for us."
The change on the openside is one of three alterations from the Wallabies starting line-up during last weekend's gritty 22-19 win over a fast-finishing Italian side at Florence.
The others see lock Kane Douglas return from a knee injury to take over from the suspended Sitaleki Timani, while Tatafu Polota-Nau resumes in the middle of the front row.
The damaging NSW Waratahs hooker, who has started 11 of Australia's 14 Tests in 2012, was a late withdrawal after being named to start the match against the Azzurri, due to general soreness carried over from Australia's 20-14 win over England in the Cook Cup Test match at Twickenham two weekends ago.
Douglas, who didn't accompany the Wallabies to Italy, instead continuing his rehabilitation in London where he could attend to his ill mother; has been put through a searching physical examination since rejoining the squad in Cardiff, with Deans saying his knee had passed the Tests with flying colours.
"Kane is ready to go," Deans says.
"It's obviously been a trying time for his whole family recently, but his dedication – both to his family and his career – is clear, and a testament to the character of the man. He arrived in Cardiff having done the work on his rehab, has got stuck in since he's been here, and was wearing the biggest smile I'd seen in a while once told he had the nod to play. He's looking forward to it."
The Australian bench includes the tour's newest arrival, NSW Waratahs scrumhalf Brendan McKibbin, who jetted in from Sydney on Tuesday to join the touring party.
While Hooper and hooker Stephen Moore have dropped back to the bench from last week's run on side, McKibbin is the only new player into the squad on the bench.
Still eligible for Scotland after having been born in Glasgow, McKibbin would become the squad's fifth scrumhalf of 2012, the 42nd player to be used by the Wallabies through 15 Tests this year, and the 14th new cap amongst that number, should he be required to take the field.
As well as providing the back drop to the end to Sharpe's 11-year Test career, the Millennium Stadium also provides the setting for the 50th Test in the career of Berrick Barnes, who scored two tries as a replacement on debut against Japan at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, before making his run on debut against Wales in Cardiff during that tournament.
Now settled into the fullback role, which he will undertake for the fifth time, having played his maiden Test from the position against Argentina during the Rugby Championship, Barnes will become the 37th Australian player to have surpassed 50 Tests.
Australia: 15 Berrick Barnes, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 Nathan Sharpe (captain), 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 James Slipper, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Dave Dennis, 20 Michael Hooper, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Mike Harris, 23 Digby Ioane.
Date: Saturday, December 1
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14.30 (14.30 GMT; 01.30, Sunday, December 2 AEDST)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite, Greg Garner (England)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)