FORMER ULSTER OUT-half Christian Lealiifano has been named in the Wallabies team for the first time since 2016, while James O’Connor is in line for his first Test appearance in 2,142 days off the bench.
31-year-old Lealiifano played for the Wallabies in the 2016 Rugby Championship but was diagnosed with leukemia only weeks later, forcing him into an extended break from rugby.
Lealiifano was a popular figure at Kingspan Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
However, the inspirational Lealiifano was back on the pitch for the Brumbies in Super Rugby just 11 months on from his diagnosis.
The playmaker had a stint with Ulster in the first half of the 2016/17 season, impressing in his 17 starts for the northern province in the Pro14 and Champions Cup.
Lealiifano has also had a spell in Japanese club rugby but has returned to the Brumbies for the past two Super Rugby seasons and underlined his enduring quality, particularly in the 2019 campaign.
Wallabies boss Michael Cheika has now rewarded Lealiifano for his form by handing him the number 10 shirt for Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash with Argentina in Brisbane [KO 10.45am Irish time, Sky Sports Action], providing the out-half with a prime opportunity to shine ahead of the World Cup.
Cheika has made a total of five changes to his XV after last weekend’s disappointing performance in a 35-17 defeat to the Springboks, with Lealiifano and Will Genia replacing Bernard Foley and Nic White as the starting halfbacks.
The introduction of loosehead prop Scott Sio is the only change to the forward pack, while Marika Koroibete comes in on the left wing and Kurtley Beale starts at fullback after playing well off the bench against the Boks.
O’Connor is named as the 23rd man by Cheika, leaving him set to complete his own comeback for the Wallabies ahead of the World Cup.
O’Connor was the Wallabies’ out-half for the 2013 Lions series. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
The 29-year-old has a dire disciplinary past and was discarded by Rugby Australia in 2013 after a drunken incident at Perth Airport.
O’Connor – who made his Test debut at the age of 18 – hasn’t been capped by the Wallabies since, despite a short stint with the Queensland Reds in 2015, and has played in Europe with London Irish, Toulon and, most recently, Sale Sharks.
There have been further controversies – including being arrested in Paris in 2017 on suspicion of attempting to buy cocaine – but O’Connor has claimed to have turned a corner in more recent years, while delivering consistent performances for Sale Sharks.
Having signed for the Reds earlier this month, O’Connor has become eligible for the Wallabies again and Cheika is willing to give him another chance.
Meanwhile, the Pumas will be without regular captain and hooker Agustin Creevy due to injury, as they make five changes after a 20-16 defeat to New Zealand last weekend.