Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has gone with form over favourites for Saturday’s Test against Fiji, axing skipper Stephen Moore and naming debutants Karmichael Hunt and Ned Hanigan.
Moore has been replaced in the starting line-up at hooker by Tatafu Polotau-Nau with flanker Michael Hooper handed the match-day captaincy duties after holding the position in 2014 while Moore was out injured.
Code-hopping Hunt has been named at inside centre to become a dual international two years after switching to rugby while Waratahs rookie Hanigan will start at blindside flanker for the Melbourne clash.
Queensland No.8 Scott Higginbotham will also return to Test rugby after a two-year absence.
Cheika denied the dumping of Moore was part of a transition as the team rebuilds ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the beginning of transition, it’s just a decision,” Cheika said.
“Stephen’s still our captain and our leader and there’s a lot of things that go on off the field … there’s a lot of things that are important to have and Stephen’s got it.”
Cheika said it wasn’t a difficult conversation to have with Moore, who only wanted the best for Australian rugby.
“He’ll take the knock on the chin and I’m sure he’ll be fighting back to get a spot,” he said.
While Moore is set for a bench position, Cheika said he wouldn’t name the remainder of the 23 until Friday with a “log-jam” of contenders still in the mix.
Hunt, 30, played 11 rugby league Tests before playing four years of AFL and then switched to rugby in 2015.
His selection at 12 is a surprise given he’s played the Super Rugby season as the Reds’ fullback and sees him leapfrog the incumbent, Melbourne’s Reece Hodge.
Cheika said Hunt’s form and hunger to represent couldn’t be ignored despite his inexperience in the role.
“I think he’s had a great season and Karmichael has forced his way into that spot,” the coach said.
“He defends there, he’s a great carrier of the ball, he’s got great footwork so the only thing he will need to add on is some of his his distribution game.”
“When you play good you should get an opportunity.”
Cheika said he picked in-form Australian players in Super Rugby rather than relying on state combinations for their opening Test of the year.
“I would think that this team has seen a lot of good individual performances throughout Super Rugby,” Cheika said.
“While our teams haven’t been up the top of the table if you look at these players individually you’d say they’ve done well.”
Wallabies: Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Tevita Kuridrani, Karmichael Hunt, Henry Speight, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper, Ned Hanigan, Adam Coleman, Sam Carter, Alan Alaalatoa, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson Res: To be named Friday.