Bernard Foley is back in the Wallabies fold for the first time since 2019, the playmaker named as part of a 35-man squad to face the Springboks as coach Dave Rennie wrestles with the position of fly-half — a problem that has now seen James O’Connor dropped.
Rennie on Thursday afternoon confirmed O’Connor wasn’t injured, but had instead been omitted after a “clunky” performance in the Wallabies’ 48-17 loss to Argentina, while also indicating that one of Waratahs duo Ben Donaldson or Tane Edmed would join the squad in a training capacity only.
“We’ve left James out, Bernard comes in, obviously we’ve still got Noah [Lolesio] and we’ve got Hodgey [Reece Hodge] who’s played a bit of 10 for us in recent weeks,” Rennie told reporters.
“Obviously James got a crack in the last Test, we thought his experience would be really important and we wanted him to drive the ship and allow us to implement our plan. And we were pretty clunky to be honest, lacked cohesion, and so he’s missed out on selection.”
Foley was last sighted in the gold jersey during the 2019 World Cup, an off night in the pool loss to Wales at that stage bringing down the curtain on his Test career.
But three years on, with Quade Cooper having succumbed to a long-term Achilles injury and Rennie clearly uneasy about his other options, the man who piloted the Wallabies to the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup is once again back in the Australia squad.
“We spoke to Bernard last year around interest to be a Wallaby again, he was serving out a suspension at the time back in Australia, and wasn’t really in a position to join us at that stage,” Rennie said. “And we’ve kept in contact since, and obviously with Quade’s injury, his availability, we started having the conversation basically after the first Argentinian Test.”
Foley had earlier this year told ESPN how he had fallen out of love with rugby amid the Wallabies’ disappointing 2019 campaign, but that a stint in Japan with Kubota Spears had since rekindled his passion for the game.
“When I made this decision I was looking for a new challenge,” he said. “We’d had probably a lean year and there was a lot going on off the field, with the Super teams and with the Wallabies, it was time for me.
“I didn’t think I was playing that well because of all the external things, different factors that were weighing me down, and I think for me that made the decision to go overseas an easier one.
“It’s also allowed me to assess and reflect on some of the things I was doing there, how to see a game differently and to fall back in love with rugby again because you have removed yourself from the environments you were existing in.”
The Wallabies will meanwhile be boosted by the return of Angus Bell, Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio, Dave Porecki, Folau Fainga’a, Rob Leota, Hunter Paisami and Andrew Kellaway, who have all either shaken off injuries or returned from personal leave.
Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper, who withdrew from the squad on the eve of the first Test against Argentina due to mindset reasons, was not named, as expected.
Rennie confirmed there was “no firm timeline” on when Hooper might rejoin the squad, but that he had spoken with his captain on multiple occasions
Elsewhere, there is a call-up for rising Waratahs back-rower Langi Gleeson who had impressed with Australia A during the recent Pacific Nations Cup campaign.
Jock Campbell has retained his place in the squad, perhaps giving a clue that he might be in the running to earn a run in the problem spot of fullback.
The Wallabies will assemble on the Gold Coast on Sunday to start preparations for the opening Test in Adelaide, a match Australia will be desperate to win both to keep their Rugby Championship hopes alive and to bounce back from the record-breaking loss to Argentina.
“It was a frustrating day and the boys were pretty embarrassed,” Rennie said reflecting on the defeat in San Juan. “Because we talk a lot about respect being earned daily. And the character that we showed the week before, under difficult circumstances was massive for us. So to not back that up massively disappointing.
“Look we gift-wrapped a few tries for the for the Argentinians and we butchered a number down the other end of the field; we counted six clear scoring opportunities. Obviously James got over the line, that was denied. Jordy [Petaia] being stripped over the line, linebreak and Fraser [McReight] picking [and going] rather than all you need to do is send that ball and the rest of the teams offside. Jed Holloway down the sideline and threw a pass over the top of [Nic White’s] head and he had a free run.
“There were six clear scoring opportunities, and so we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to make sure that we convert and then as we talked about, we just gave them some real soft ones. A couple in behind. We got into halftime 26-10 down, but really we’ve had more than enough opportunities to probably be up by the same scoreline.
“Hugely disappointing way to finish, conceding a couple of tries in the last couple of minutes, but we just got to be better. People want to talk about who’s missing but we had a good enough side on the field to win that. And, you know, we’re certainly going to perform better regardless of who’s in the jersey. It was tough, tough feeling on the plane on the way out, I’ll put it that way.”
WALLABIES SQUAD TO FACE SOUTH AFRICA
Forwards: Allan Alaalatoa, Rory Arnold, Angus Bell, Pone Fa’amausili, Folau Fainga’a, Nick Frost, Langi Gleeson, Jed Holloway, Rob Leota, Lachlan Lonergan, Fraser McReight, Matt Philip, David Porecki, Pete Samu, Scott Sio, James Slipper, Darcy Swain, Taniela Tupou, Rob Valetini, Harry Wilson
Backs: Jock Campbell, Lalakai Foketi, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Reece Hodge, Len Ikitau, Andrew Kellaway, Marika Koroibete, Noah Lolesio, Tate McDermott, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Suliasi Vunivalu, Nic White, Tom Wright