Sidelined Wallabies captain Michael Hooper will re-enter the Test rugby cauldron for the first time since withdrawing from the Argentina tour in September citing “mindset” issues, as national coach Dave Rennie named the 121-Test player in his 36-man squad for Australia’s tour of Europe starting next week.
Although 123-Test veteran James Slipper will continue as captain on the upcoming tour, the return of Hooper, 30, the Wallabies’ talisman, is a boost for a side struggling for form and confidence in the run up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in September.
“To have Michael back in the group is massive for our team on and off the field,” Rennie confirmed. “We’ll continue to make sure that he has the support around him he needs.”
Currently ranked ninth in the world, the side’s lowest standing since rankings were introduced in the professional era, the Wallabies take on five northern hemisphere nations, including the current top-two ranked sides in the world France and Ireland, in the gruelling five week tour through Europe.
Rennie has selected five uncapped players in the group with Melbourne Rebels prop Sam Talakai and NSW pair Ben Donaldson and Mark Nawaqanitawase named as members of the Wallabies squad for the first time.
Donaldson and Nawaqanitawase impressed in the Australia A program in Fiji and Japan, alongside specialist fullback Jock Campbell and Langi Gleeson who are the other two players who could potentially debut in Europe. Gleeson’s selection continues an impressive rise for the 21-year-old Manly Marlin who stands 188cm, weighs 107kg and is the fastest man over 40-metres in the Waratahs squad.
Versatile flanker Ned Hanigan has been named in his first national setup since 2020 after also impressing in Japan for Australia A, with Western Force front rower Tom Robertson re-joining the group after Waratahs front-row star Angus Bell was cruelly ruled out for the rest of the International season with his foot injury.
Rennie has chosen two overseas-based players in the squad under the Giteau Law, with La Rochelle’s Will Skelton – the 203cm, 140kg forward – returning to the Wallaby gold after appearing in all three games off the bench in last year’s Spring Tour.
Veteran fly-half Bernard Foley is the other overseas-based player chosen, with the No 10 making a confident return to the Test arena in the Bledisloe Cup series last month. Quade Cooper, the Wallabies other senior playmaking option, is still recovering from the achilles injury he suffered in the warmup for the first Test against England in July.
While Donaldson and Noah Lolesio will vie with Foley for the fly-half position, Kurtley Beale’s bid for a fourth World Cup is in flux after the 33-year-old was left out of the 36-man squad. The mercurial fullback will need a stellar Super Rugby season with the Waratahs if he is to become the first indigenous man to 100 Test caps.
Million-dollar-man Taniela Tupou has been named as fit and ready to resume front-row duties, while Brumbies fullback Tom Banks returns to the back three after suffering a badly broken arm against England. He will duel with Jordan Petaia, Andrew Kellaway and Campbell for the all-important fullback position.
Australia kick off their campaign with a Test against Scotland in Edinburgh on October 30 before a November 6 Test against France in Paris, the first since 2016. They will then move to play Italy in Florence on November 13 before Tests against Ireland in Dublin on November 20 and Wales in Cardiff on November 27 to round out their 2022 season. The squad assembles in Sydney on Tuesday and flies out the next day.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie is under growing pressure to deliver, as his win percentage slips under 38%, the lowest of any Australian coach in the professional era. He remains bullish. “We’ve got a massive opportunity over the next five matches to test ourselves against some of the best teams in the world and string together some performances that our supporters are proud of back home in Australia.”
“It’s been really pleasing to continue to get game time into our players through the Australia A program and a number of those guys have been rewarded for their form with selection in the squad.”
Australia squad: Allan Ala’alatoa, Tom Banks, Jock Campbell, Ben Donaldson, Folau Fainga’a, Lalakai Foketi, Bernard Foley, Matt Gibbon, Nick Frost, Langi Gleeson, Jake Gordon, Ned Hanigan, Reece Hodge, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Len Ikitau, Andrew Kellaway, Noah Lolesio, Lachlan Lonergan, Tate McDermott, Fraser McReight, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Cadeyrn Neville, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Matt Philip, Dave Porecki, Tom Robertson, Pete Samu, Will Skelton, James Slipper, Sam Talakai, Taniela Tupou, Rob Valetini, Nic White, Tom Wright.