x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ewen McKenzie calls in changes to Australia for Rugby Championship

New coach Ewen McKenzie makes several changes to Australia's squad ahead of the Rugby Championship, and New Zealand's Richie McCaw is working on his match fitness.

Benn Robinson, centre, with the ball, has been dropped from the Wallabies' squad list for this month's Rugby Championship.
Benn Robinson, centre, with the ball, has been dropped from the Wallabies' squad list for this month's Rugby Championship.

SYDNEY // The veteran prop Benn Robinson was overlooked as Ewen McKenzie, the new coach, on Friday named eight uncapped players in his inaugural 30-man Australia squad for this month's Rugby Championship.

Robinson, who played in the recent losing series against the British & Irish Lions and has seen action in 59 Tests, was the major omission after being a mainstay of the Wallabies' tight five.

"He's very disappointed. I was actually pleased about that. If he wasn't disappointed, I'd be disappointed," McKenzie said of Robinson, one of Australia's most-capped front-rowers.

"Obviously, for a player of his experience, it's a bit of a blow. But everyone needs to understand you've got to be delivering.

"He knows what he needs to do. We'll keep him close and he's got every chance of pushing his way back in."

The rising ACT Brumbies prop Scott Sio, 21, is in line for his first Test cap, in Robinson's absence.

Sio is one of uncapped players in the final squad.

"Sometimes you've got to be proactive and get on with it if you think you've got a guy that's got some real ability," McKenzie said.

He retained the newcomers Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley from his preliminary squad as playmaking options, along with Quade Cooper for the fly-half spot, for the first Test against New Zealand, at Sydney, on August 17.

"They're all there so you're going to have to keep speculating about it … we don't need to make a decision publicly about the play-making role until one hour before the game," McKenzie said, keen to keep the All Blacks guessing.

Other uncapped players in the side were the back-rowers Scott Fardy and Jake Schatz, the hooker Albert Anae, the centre Tevita Kuridrani and the scrum-half Nic White.

"The reality is not one player in the current squad has lifted up the Bledisloe Cup before, but if they are good enough over seven days and two matches, then this will change," McKenzie said.

"It's unfortunate that a number of good players missed out, although this isn't necessarily a case of poor performance but rather a reflection of some of the quality we have coming through in Australian rugby right now.

"For the moment, though, we've narrowed our way down to a group of players we believe are capable of getting the job done against the All Blacks in just over a week."

This will be McKenzie's first Test in charge since replacing Robbie Deans in the fallout to last month's 2-1 series loss to the Lions.

Back-rower Dave Dennis and back-up scrum-half Nick Phipps, both in Deans' squad against the Lions, were other casualties.

The squad will be captained by lock James Horwill and has a combined total of 575 Test appearances and includes players from all five Super Rugby provinces.

Brumbies placed the most players in the squad, with 11, followed by nine from Queensland Reds, McKenzie's former side; and six from NSW Waratahs.

The squad has an average age of just under 25.

The hooker Stephen Moore is the only squad member over age 30.



Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain, looked short of fitness about 20 minutes into a practice match on Friday, but he and coach Steve Hansen felt satisfied he would be ready for their opening Rugby Championship clash against Australia on August 17.

McCaw has only recently returned to rugby after a six-month sabbatical and was expected to play the full 80 minutes of the match against the Canterbury and Wellington provincial sides at the Hutt Recreation Ground in Wellington.

However, McCaw, 32, left the field after the first 40 minutes, when the All Blacks played Canterbury, and did not appear in the second 40-minute session against Wellington.

At one stage during the first half, he appeared to be sucking in air with both hands anchored to his hips. The hookers Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore deputised at open-side flanker for the second session.

"Fitness-wise there was a bit of running there," McCaw said, smiling, after the games that were essentially a contested training session. "It certainly burned a bit, but not too bad."

After only 80 minutes in a lower-level club game a month ago, and two brief cameos for the Canterbury Crusaders in their Super Rugby play-offs, McCaw was short of match play.

Hansen said he planned for McCaw to play only the first session.

"We just wanted to get a good 40 out of him and, energy-wise, he felt he could have gone on, but we felt that 40 was enough," said Hansen, added that the matches had given several players whose teams had not made the Super Rugby play-offs valuable game time before the Rugby Championship.


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