Australia’s Noah Lolesio and Irae Simone will make their Test debuts against New Zealand in Saturday’s opening Tri-Nations clash and while the duo will be put under pressure All Blacks captain Sam Cane does not see their inexperience as a weak link.
The Brumbies pair have come in at flyhalf and inside centre to replace the injured James O’Connor and Matt Toomua in a backline where the seven players have only five more caps between them than captain Michael Hooper (101) has himself.
The match in Sydney also doubles as the third Bledisloe Cup Test between the sides, with the Wallabies needing to win to have any hope of winning the series. Cane said the All Blacks would bring pressure on the Wallabies pair but not because of their inexperience.
“Like any Test match we will be looking to put pressure on the guys that drive them around the park,” Cane said on Friday. “Their playmakers have been at 10 and 12, so nothing will change. We will look to put them under pressure.”
Lolesio and Simone were “quality young footballers”, Cane said, adding that players on their debut tend to rise to the occasion rather than let the side down.
“You chuck that Wallabies jersey on and you go out there to put your best foot forward,” he said. “I think most people who make a debut … have a pretty good game because it is the realisation of a dream.”
All Blacks inside centre Jack Goodhue may have a bit of extra sting in his first collision with Simone, who he played with at secondary school in Auckland. “I think it will be good to have bragging rights over my midfield partner,” Goodhue said. “There will no doubt be an Instagram photo afterwards.”
Former World Cup captain Stirling Mortlock ranks Wallabies coach Dave Rennie’s daring picks as “right up there” with the boldest selection calls Australian rugby has ever seen.
“Especially given the context. We haven’t won the Bledisloe Cup in almost 20 years,” Mortlock told AAP. “And this year it’s on the line and we’ve picked two debutants at 10 and 12, so it’s right up there. Having said that, Lolesio is a great player, an outstanding talent. I would have loved to have seen him blooded in the first two [games of the series].”
Australia’s last three 10-12 combinations to debut against the All Blacks all featured in Wallabies defeats, including the most recent – Kevin Bourke and Neville Emery in 1947 – when the All Blacks won 27-14 at the SCG.
Not since Wally Lewis and Dooney Hayes helped Australia to a 25-11 win over New Zealand at the SCG in 1934 have an untried midfield Test pairing been successful for the Wallabies in a Bledisloe Cup encounter.
Hooper, though, is unfazed. “I’m not focused on history, I’m focused on tomorrow night,” Hooper said after the Wallabies’ captain’s run. “And we have a really good opportunity in Sydney. We have a really good, exciting young team that’s playing some pretty good footy.”
Making Lolesio’s international debut even more startling is the fact that he has only played nine games of Super Rugby. That does not concern Hooper either.
“He’s a confident player,” said the Wallabies skipper. “Watching him from afar in the Brumbies outfit, he’s been really good in the way he manages himself and the team. So I’ve been impressed with him there.
“But probably more, he had a bench spot down in Wellington and didn’t get on. Then he was out of the team [in Auckland] and now he’s straight into the starting team. Everyone in our team is a great story and he’s no different.”
The Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 and, trailing 1-0 in the four-match series after losing 27-7 in Auckland and drawing 16-16 in Wellington, must win on Saturday keep their 2020 hopes alive. The last game is in Brisbane on Saturday week.