Michael Cheika says James OConnor will provide something a little different for the Wallabies at No.13 against the All Blacks this weekend and is confident his sound defence and excellent ball skills will hold him in good stead for a return to the Test arena in the starting side.
It comes as Cheika confirmed David Pocock was targeting next weeks Bledisloe Cup match in Auckland on his return from a calf injury, while also saying the gap between his first and second-choice halfbacks and No.10s was very close.
OConnor's selection at No.13 has raised eyebrows ahead of the Bledisloe Cup opener in Perth, mostly for the fact many felt the 29-year-old was best suited at inside-centre or elsewhere in the back line.
He will link up with Samu Kerevi in the midfield and there is some chat the pair could interchange in attack and defence.
It comes as Tevita Kuridrani, who played there in Johannesburg and Brisbane, was hooked from the side altogether.
Asked why OConnor got the nod, Cheika said: “Just a different set-up in the midfield. Samu and Tevita have played together there over the first couple of games … and I think James will bring something a little bit different that we havent seen and definitely our opponents wont have seen either.
“There will be certain set-piece requirements that hell need to fill there and then after that its just being there and playing footy … thats what hes good at. He is very solid in his defensive work over the training time [with the Wallabies] and the footage I have seen of him from over in the UK.
“I have had a lot of faith in him.”
Christian Lealiifano has been rewarded with another start at five-eighth after he helped the Wallabies to a 20-16 win over Argentina in Brisbane.
It leaves Bernard Foley in the wilderness for another week, with Cheika saying Lealiifano had earned his spot fair and square.
“Again [it was] tight but Christian did his job last weekend,” Cheika said. “It was his first game back in international colours for a while. He distributed well, made his tackles, took his kicks at goal. Its very tight and its good weve got competition, with Matt Toomua there as well. Its making it tough for selection.”
The other winner in Thursdays team naming was Nic White, who edged out regular starter Will Genia for what will be his eighth Test against New Zealand and first since 2015.
“Nic played very well against South Africa,” Cheika said. “Will came out and returned serve the next week and its tough going. Im not going to say Nic won [the selection battle] because theyre both performing very well.
“Hes got a different type of experience now, having played in Europe. Hes been waiting a few years to get out and play another Bledisloe. The last one was in 2015 where he picked up a try in Sydney, so itll be good to have him back out there.”
Cheika said Pocock, who has been battling a calf injury for five months, was targeting a return next weekend in the second Bledisloe fixture at Eden Park.
“We are just going to get to the next milestone and he has one today, an important one, and if we get through that we will see how he lands,” Cheika said.
Cheika has stuck solid with the same second-rowers and back row that got the job done in Brisbane but tweaked his front row slightly, with hooker Tolu Latu earning his first start since the England Test at Twickenham last year.
Folau Faingaa is on the bench, with Cheika saying he had played “OK” in two Tests this year.
Tight-head prop Allan Alaalatoa has returned from injury, replacing Sekope Kepu in the starters.
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