Cheika rings changes as Wallabies enter post-Folau era

Johannesburg (AFP) –


Australia coach Michael Cheika has boldly gone back to the future for the Rugby Championship opener against South Africa, as Australia seek to put the Israel Folau saga behind them.

Cheika named Tom Banks as Folau's replacement at fullback in a vote of confidence for the attack-minded Brumbies flier, who only has three Test caps.

He also handed a debut to powerhouse number eight Isi Naisarani and gave prop Harry Johnson-Holmes the chance to win his maiden Test cap off the bench.

But Cheika has also looked to the past in naming a run-on team that has 10 changes from the Wallabies' last outing, a 37-18 loss to England at Twickenham in November.

Prop James Slipper plays his first international since 2016 and scrum-half Nic White his first since 2015, while the centres pairing of Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi have not worked together at Test level since 2017.

Cheika resisted the temptation to pitch James O'Connor back into the fray just days after the former bad boy re-signed with Australian rugby after six years in the Test wilderness.

However, the 44-Test back is sure to feature during the campaign as Cheika seeks to get the misfiring Wallabies humming again.

The Twickenham loss capped their worst season in decades and raised alarm bells ahead of the World Cup.

Cheika survived a review but had his wings clipped when he was forced to report to newly appointed director of rugby Scott Johnson and join a three-man selection panel.

The off-season was then dominated by Folau's sacking over homophobic social media posts, which generated reports of divisions within the team over the issue.

Cheika said his players just wanted to get back on the park.

"We really want to begin building momentum to take us towards our goals in 2019," he said.

"The players are impatient to play at Ellis Park where our Wallabies haven't had an opportunity to play for quite a while."

The Wallabies last won at Ellis Park in 1963 and have since lost six times at the venue, with their most appearance a 53-8 drubbing in 2008.

Their last win in South Africa was in Durban in 2011, although Cheika's men managed a 27-27 draw in Bloemfontein in 2017.

"We know we go into the game as heavy underdogs but most of the players have had a touch over three great weeks of training to prepare," he said.

"So really they just can't wait to get out and get into the battle."

Australia (15-1)

Tom Banks; Dane Haylett-Petty, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge; Bernard Foley, Nic White; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (capt), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto; Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda; Sekope Kepu, Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper.

Replacements: Jordan Uelese, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Jack Dempsey, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Kurtley Beale.