Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has recovered from injury in time to face New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup after being named in a trimmed down squad.
The skipper hasn’t played since suffering a hamstring issue in the first Test against Ireland, but his return is a timely boost for head coach Michael Cheika.
He joins uncapped duo Jack Maddocks and Tom Banks in the 28-man group while Reece Hodge has moved closer to the number 13 jersey.
Waratahs centre Curtis Rona loomed as Hodge’s major competition for the role but he was one of eight players cut from the squad six days out from the Test opener.
Israel Folau is the only other possibility for the spot, though Cheika has been adamant he prefers him in the 15 jersey.
Cheika said after the Wallabies trial at Leichhardt Oval that Hodge or Rona would be the most likely 13 options for the opening Bledisloe.
Despite the signs all pointing to the Rebels utility stepping up to that spot, Hodge was keeping his cards close to his chest when asked about the prospect on Sunday.
“There’s still a few guys in the squad who can play 13,” he told rugby.com.au.
“Izzy’s (Folau) still an option as well. At the moment, throughout the preparation, the last few weeks has been about trying as many combinations we can get comfortable playing next to everyone who’s in the squad and I think it’s going to be really important for us come game one.
“Getting that game time a couple of weeks ago to try out those combinations under a match situation and then throughout training as well.
“It’s important to be able to play depending on who’s where. Cheik’s still got a week to change his mind about selections, so who knows where it’s going to up but we’re prepared as best we can be for Saturday.”
Meanwhile, Banks and Maddocks will be likely competing for a Test debut in the clash – the only two uncapped players left in the squad after Jordan Petaia, Billy Meakes, Folau Faingaa and Jermaine Ainsley missed the cut.
Scott Sio (shoulder) has also been passed fit, while Rory Arnold, Caleb Timu, Billy Meakes and Sefa Naivalu are the others who missed the cut after a week-long camp in Cessnock.
Australia’s 28-man squad for Rugby Championship opener:
Forwards: Allan Alaalatoa, Adam Coleman, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper (c), Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson, Izack Rodda, Pete Samu, Rob Simmons, Scott Sio, Lukhan Tui, Taniela Tupou
Backs: Tom Banks, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks, Nick Phipps, Joe Powell, Matt Toomua
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