BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Christian Leali’ifano is set to play his first test in more than three years for Australia in a remarkable recovery from leukemia.
The inclusion of the inspirational flyhalf is one of five changes to Australia’s starting lineup for Saturday’s Rugby Championship match against Argentina.
“He’s had a great season in Super Rugby,” Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said of the 31-year-old playmaker. “I think he’s definitely deserved the opportunity. He’s had a lot of quality time spent since he’s been in here, not just for himself, but the way he gets around his teammates.”
Leali’ifano played the last of his 19 tests in a 44-40 loss to England in Sydney in June, 2016, two months before he was diagnosed with leukemia. He recovered after intensive treatment to rejoin the Canberra-based Brumbies in Super Rugby late in the 2017 season.
A number of earlier comebacks from injury demonstrated the resilience of Leali’ifano, who made his test debut as a centre against the British and Irish Lions in 2013 but lasted less than a minute in that game before he was concussed in a tackle. He played 13 tests that year before breaking his ankle.
Cheika also made five changes to his reserves bench in the wake of last weekend’s 35-17 loss to South Africa in Johannesburg, drafting in James O’Connor and giving the utility back a chance to play his first test in almost six years.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma also made five changes to the lineup that started in last weekend’s 20-16 loss to World Cup champion New Zealand in Buenos Aires, with foreign-based Facundo Isa and Santiago Cordero making returns for the Pumas.
Isa, who plays for Toulon, will start for the first time since 2016 when he runs out at No. 8, replacing Javier Ortega Desio.
Exeter’s Cordero will start on the wing. Julian Montoya replaces the injured Agustin Creevy at hooker, with Tomas Lezana starting ahead of Marcos Kremer and Joaquin Tuculet coming in for the rested Emiliano Boffelli.
Scott Sio’s return from a hamstring injury in the front row is the only change to Australia’s starting forward pack.
In a new-look backline, veteran scrumhalf Will Genia returns along with Leali’ifano, winger Marika Koroibete and Kurtley Beale at fullback.
“There have been a lot of players pushing hard for selection,” said Cheika, already looking ahead for the Rugby World Cup in Japan starting in September. “We want to keep some combinations and bring in some others. It’s only logical that we could use these outings to give everyone a chance to play.”
Genia is set to play his last international game in his hometown of Brisbane following his decision to retire from test rugby at the end of 2019. The Wallabies have won 10 of 12 matches in Brisbane with Genia in the lineup.
O’Connor has been included among the reserves within weeks of re-signing for his former Super Rugby franchise, the Queensland Reds. He missed selection for the Johannesburg test despite training with the squad in South Africa.
Australia has lost just one of its last eight games against Argentina, although that defeat came at home last year on the Gold Coast.
Australia: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Leali’ifano, Will Genia; Scott Sio, Folau Fainga’a, Sekope Kepu, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper (captain), Isi Naisarani. Reserves: Tolu Latu, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Luke Jones, Nic White, Matt To’omua, James O’Connor.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero, Matias Moroni, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyana, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Nahuel Tatez Chaparro, Julian Montoya, Juan Figallo, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavinini, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lezana, Facundo Isa. Reserves: Santiago Socino, Mayco Vivas, Ramiro Herrera, Matias Alemanno, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Felipe Ezcurra, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Matias Orlando.
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