New Australia coach Ewen McKenzie had promised surprises and he delivered on Thursday by handing flyhalf Matt Toomua his first cap and putting Quade Cooper on the bench for the Rugby Championship opener against New Zealand.
Although trailed by leaks to the media, Toomua’s selection for Saturday’s match at Sydney’s Olympic stadium was a sensational move by McKenzie, who had been Cooper’s main cheerleader after he was dropped by previous coach Robbie Deans.
“Quade was disappointed, as was every player not picked,” McKenzie told a news conference.
“That’s the way it is, that’s the nature of the business. We’ve picked the guys who are doing what we want and are best-suited to what we want to do.”
Time for change
Former Queensland Reds coach McKenzie replaced Deans after the crushing third Test defeat to the British and Irish Lions last month, an appointment that was presumed to herald the return of Cooper to the Wallabies number 10 shirt.
“Things change,” McKenzie added.
“I was coaching Quade in a very specific environment, now I’m coaching a whole lot of other blokes and I’ve found out more about guys I didn’t know, plus I’ve seen things during the year.
“I’ve also got very specific thoughts about how I want to play this game.
“In the end we’re favouring certain skills that we think will help us at the start of the game and Quade’s still there in the bench. It doesn’t mean Quade won’t have a big part in the game.”
After an injury plagued 2012, Toomua, defensively strong and with all the silky skills expected of a Wallabies flyhalf, earned his place in the squad on the back of a fine Super Rugby season when he helped the ACT Brumbies to the final.
The 23-year-old was quick to pay tribute to the “huge” role played in his development by Stephen Larkham and said he hoped to emulate the 102-cap Brumbies assistant coach by making the flyhalf position his own.
“I’m very excited, it’s a dream for every Australian rugby player,” he said.
“It’s exciting to get that first crack but that’s all it is. Hopefully I’ll be there for a while but … you can’t get too hung up on sentiment too early, it’s about executing out there and hopefully that will give me the best chance of keeping that number 10 shirt.”
Toomua was one of five uncapped Brumbies in the matchday 23 but the only one to start, with scrumhalf Nic White, centre Tevita Kuridrani, versatile lock/loose forward Scott Fardy and prop Scott Sio all on the bench.
McKenzie said he had no qualms about blooding so many untested players in a match against the world champions.
“It’s performance orientated, the Brumbies have been playing great football all season,” he added. “The guys in form, the guys that are doing well, are the guys we’ve picked.
“When’s the right time to debut? I don’t know,” he said.
“You just pick guys when they’re ready and when you need them.”
The abrasive Hugh McMeniman was also included in the side at blindside flanker, earning a recall to win his 22nd cap after nearly five years in the international wilderness.
The selection of Jesse Mogg at fullback, one of six Brumbies in the starting line-up and 10 in the squad, could be an indication of the way the Wallabies will play.
“He’s got moments of brilliance in him,” said McKenzie. “He’s a very good attacking player.”