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Wallabies name Smith in starting XV

04th July 2013 00:56

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Michael Hooper standing alongside George Smith

Starting: George Smith

Wallabies flanker George Smith will play his first Test match in four years after being named in Australia's starting XV for Saturday's series decider against the British and Irish Lions in Sydney.

The Brumbies veteran, who featured in the 2001 Test in Sydney where Australia beat the Lions 29-23 to claim that series, is Australia's third highest capped player.

Much has changed since then but Smith remains among the elite in his position, having proved that since his return from Japan to back up the Brumbies in Super Rugby after injury sidelined Test flanker David Pocock.

While Smith is the only change to last week's starting XV - he replaces Michael Hooper - the Wallabies' expectations of another demanding forward exchange has been reflected in the make-up of the bench, which reverts to a six-forward, two-back split.

Abrasive Western Force loose forward Ben McCalman returns, positioning him to appear in his first Test since Australia beat Wales in Cardiff at the end of 2011. Rob Horne is the unlucky back to make way, with Nick Phipps and uncapped full-back Jesse Mogg providing the run on options.

The Brumbies have risen to the top of the Australian conference and the influence of Smith, most notably at the breakdown, has been a big factor in that, noted Wallabies coach Robbie Deans.

"He's class, isn't he?" Deans says.

"To have achieved what George has throughout his career, and return to play at the highest level, after such a long break, is a testament to the quality of the man, both as a person, and as a player."

In gaining selection, Smith returns for a possible 'farewell' Test appearance on Australian soil, after previously having 'signed off' during the 33-12 win over Wales in Cardiff at the end of the 2009 EuropeanTour.

Smith became the 75th player to captain Australia when appointed to lead the Wallabies against Canada at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. He led the side on six occasions in Tests through the 2007-2009 period.

The decision to request an early release from his existing Australian Rugby Union contract in 2010, saw Smith depart for French club Toulon after that year's Super Rugby season.

This denied him the opportunity of a farewell Test on Australian soil, which now comes 12 years after he first played the Lions, and 13 years after making his Test debut.

Saturday's match will be his fourth against the British and Irish side, after he featured in all three Tests of the 2001 tour. By lining up against the Lions for a fourth time, Smith equals a record held by seven other players for the most Test appearances by an Australian against the Lions.

He becomes the fourth Wallaby - alongside fellow legends 'Slaggy' Miller, John Thornett and Peter Johnson, to have completed the feat across two separate tours, with his predecessors all having featured against the Lions on the 1959 and 1967 tours.

Celebrating his 33rd birthday on Sunday week, Smith boasts 110 previous Test appearances, six behind Nathan Sharpe, and 29 behind Australia's most capped player, his former Brumbies team-mate George Gregan.

Australia has developed its openside depth in the absence of Smith both through the rise of Pocock, but also Hooper, who drops to the bench this week after starting in each of the first two Tests of the series.

Another rising star, last year's Australia U20 captain Liam Gill, comes out of the squad after having contributed from the bench previously.

"The decision to go with George in no way reflects any dissatisfaction with the way either Michael or Liam have played," Deans says.

"But it has been a tough series - the first two games have been rugged, especially at the breakdown, and we feel that the combination of experience and fresh legs that George brings is the right way to go for this week.

"His expertise in the contact zone, where timing, judgement and physicality is everything, is going to be critical. Being able to call on George allows us to lighten the load on Michael while retaining the ability to inject him into what is sure to be a fast-paced and highly physical contest."

Deans says the utility value within the starting backline provides adequate positional cover for all but the most "extreme" of circumstance.

Looking ahead to the game, the Wallabies coach says having a series decider in front of a capacity crowd, in excess of 80,000, at ANZ Stadium represents an "appropriate end" to a series that has, to date, lived up to its billing.

"The fact that this will be the third sell-out crowd, in what is such a competitive Australian sporting market, says it all," Deans notes.

With the third Test concluding the season for the Lions players, Deans says he expects the touring players to "empty their tanks".

Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Will Genia, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Ben Mowen, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 James Horwill (captain), 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 James Slippper, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Michael Hooper, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Jesse Mogg.

Date: Saturday, July 6
Venue: ANZ Stadium
Kick-off: 20.00 AEST (11.00 BST, 10.00 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Craig Joubert (South Africa)