GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) — Three thumping losses to the All Blacks have captain Michael Hooper and his Australia lineup in a position where they simply have to start winning to regain any confidence.
The Rugby Championship isn’t going to get easier any time soon for the Wallabies. Next up are the World Cup champions.
Hooper’s lineup faces South Africa on Sunday night in the second match of a doubleheader on the Gold Coast. New Zealand and Argentina will kick off the four-week run of doubleheaders in Australia’s Queensland state earlier in the day.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way . . . we want to be playing these type of games,” Hooper said after the Australian team’s captain’s run on Saturday. “That’s going to really help our trajectory.”
Hooper is set to equal George Gregan’s record of 59 tests as Wallabies captain when he leads Australia onto the field against South Africa. A text message from Gregan earlier this week brought a smile to his face, he said, but the milestone doesn’t change anything in Hooper’s approach to the job at hand.
“We’ve got to keep our mindset strong and (our) belief in what we’re trying to do,” Hooper said. “Sometimes when you play a really slick outfit like New Zealand, and what we’re about to face, you’ve got to be strong in what we’re trying to achieve. Not reactive.”
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber picked his strongest tight five and also included six forwards among the reserves — three of them loose forwards — in a 6-2 split.
No. 8 Duane Vermeulen will return from injury to start for the Springboks for the first time since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi said the backup guaranteed there'd be full intensity from the start, with speed at the breakdown and nullifying Hooper's influence as the keys.
“We’ve got nothing to hold back because there’s somebody who can come on at any time,” Kolisi said. “Anyone can start in this squad — you know if you have an off day, somebody else will take the opportunity."
Nienaber made seven changes to the starting XV and 13 changes in all to the 23-man squad that beat Argentina in South Africa's previous game. The Springboks opened the Rugby Championship with two wins over Argentina while also resting some frontline players following the series win over the British and Irish Lions.
Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is returning to partner flyhalf Handre Pollard, but Cheslin Kolbe was injured in training this week and will be replaced by Sbu Nkosi on the right wing.
The Wallabies have a good idea of what to expect from South Africa, which relies on a pinpoint kicking game to maintain field position and keep the scoreboard moving, and a giant forward pack to physically dominate.
Australia coach Dave Rennie is throwing something a little bit different back, calling up 33-year-old Quade Cooper at flyhalf for his first test start since 2017.
Cooper, who has been playing club rugby in Japan, will replace Noah Lolesio in the playmaker role. Among other areas of concern, the Australians struggled for backline cohesion as they were swept 3-0 by New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup series — the second and third matches doubled as Rugby Championship contests.
“It’s very exciting. He’s got such a unique story (and) such a quality player when he’s on,” Hooper said. "He’s been a really positive influence on the group, really assisting some of the younger players and working on his own craft.
“He’s the right selection for the game this week. Everyone is pretty pumped to see him out there."
Australia and South Africa haven't met since 2019, with the Springboks missing the Rugby Championship in 2020 because of restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The South Africans have lost only one of their last six tests against Australia, but assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said it was the Springboks away record in head-to-heads — particularly Australia's 11-1 record in Queensland state since 1993 — that would be the focus of attention on Sunday.
“If we want to see growth in our side, we need to be able to travel and win away from home,” Stick said. “It’s the first game on tour. It’s important for us to start well."
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