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Openside flanker David Pocock will complete his return to on-field duties after today being named to start in the Qantas Wallabies' year-ending James Bevan Trophy Test against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday [kick-off: 1.30am, Sunday morning, AEDST]. Pocock led Australia to a three-nil clean sweep of the Grand Slam-winning Wales in June, but has not appeared since injuring his knee during the Wallabies' opening match of the inaugural Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship against the All Blacks at Sydney in August.
The 24-year-old was scheduled to make his return earlier in the Spring Tour, but was held back after sustaining a mild calf strain at training prior to Australia's departure from Paris following the opening game of the tour. Pocock's return allows the work load to be eased for star rookie Michael Hooper, who has performed exceptionally in the absence of his senior colleague.
Used off the bench against the Six Nations champions in June, Hooper ends his freshman Test season having started nine Tests consecutively prior to this weekend, where he will be injected into the game from the bench. The high class 21-year-old fetcher has won the Australian team's internal Player of the Day award on four occasions from those nine starting appearances.
Although Pocock will not captain the Wallabies this weekend, with that honour remaining with Pocock's long-time Western Force and Wallaby colleague Nathan Sharpe as he plays his 116th and final Test; Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says his return will provide the squad with fresh impetus â€“ both physically and mentally.
"David is one of the best in the world as a player, and is growing every day as a leader, so naturally we are delighted to have him back," Deans says.
"While he has continued to contribute off the field, this tour has been one of frustration for him, but we were not prepared to take any risks and potentially compromise either the player or the team, in terms of his fitness. The upside to the wait is that his return comes at a time where we need fresh energy, as was evident at times during our Test in Italy last weekend."
Although Deans believes Pocock is capable of playing the full Test, pointing to the lengthy training background he had prior to the calf strain, the inclusion of Hooper in the match night squad gives Australia the option of applying two openside flankers to the breakdown contest.
This is a tactic the Wallabies employed with success, when using the fetchers in tandem, during the June Tests against Wales.
"Michael [Hooper] has had a massive year and it was evident that for him, as well as some others, it was starting to take its toll last weekend," Deans says.
"He's earned the right to finish the year on the park. Having the option of working him alongside David at some point during the contest is a win-win for us."
The change on the openside is one of three alterations from the Qantas Wallabies starting line-up during last weekend's gritty 22-19 win over a fast-finishing Italian side at Florence.
The others see lock Kane Douglas return from a knee injury to take over from the suspended Sitaleki Timani, while Tatafu Polota-Nau resumes in the middle of the front row.
The damaging NSW Waratahs hooker, who has started 11 of Australia's 14 Tests in 2012, was a late withdrawal after being named to start the match against the Azzurri, due to general soreness carried over from Australia's 20-14 win over England in the Cook Cup Test match at Twickenham two weekends ago.
Douglas, who didn't accompany the Wallabies to Italy, instead continuing his rehabilitation in London where he could attend to his ill mother; has been put through a searching physical examination since rejoining the squad in Cardiff, with Deans saying his knee had passed the Tests with flying colours.
"Kane is ready to go," Deans says.
"It's obviously been a trying time for his whole family recently, but his dedication â€“ both to his family and his career â€“ is clear, and a testament to the character of the man. He arrived in Cardiff having done the work on his rehab, has got stuck in since he's been here, and was wearing the biggest smile I'd seen in a while once told he had the nod to play. He's looking forward to it."
The Australian bench includes the tour's newest arrival, NSW Waratahs halfback Brendan McKibbin, who jetted in from Sydney on Tuesday morning to join the touring party.
While Hooper and hooker Stephen Moore have dropped back to the bench from last week's run on side, McKibbin is the only new player into the squad on the bench. Still eligible for Scotland after having been born in Glasgow, McKibbin would become the squad's fifth halfback of 2012, the 42nd player to be used by the Wallabies through 15 Tests this year, and the 14th new cap amongst that number, should he be required to take the field.
As well as providing the back drop to the end to Sharpe's 11-year Test career, the Millennium Stadium also provides the setting for the 50th Test in the career of Berrick Barnes, who scored two tries as a replacement on debut against Japan at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, before making his run on debut against Wales in Cardiff during that tournament.
Now settled into the fullback role, which he will undertake for the fifth time, having played his maiden Test from the position against Argentina during the Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship, Barnes will become the 37th Australian player to have surpassed 50 Tests.
Australia has held the James Bevan Trophy since prising it away from Wales courtesy of a commanding 33-12 win which closed the 2009 Spring Tour.
The Wallabies have strung together six subsequent wins over Wales in succession since that match, five of which have been achieved in the last 14 months.
Deans, however, believes that history will only provide Wales with more motivation, as will the reigning Six Nations champions' current plight, which sees them facing the prospect of a winless [Northern Hemisphere] autumn series, should Australia prevail again at the weekend. Wales has previously lost to Argentina, Samoa and New Zealand this month.
"You don't win two Grand Slams in the last four years [2008 & 2012] while also making the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup without being a quality oufit, and a resilient one," Deans says. "If we were in their situation, I know the response I would be expecting.
"Cornered beasts are always the most dangerous; they have nowhere else to go but straight ahead! I've no doubt that [Wales coach] Warren [Gatland] and his men will feel that way at the moment. They did some good things last weekend against New Zealand, and weren't always rewarded for them. Our recent history [against Wales] shows how little there is between the two sides. Our blokes won't need reminding of that."
So close was the mid-year series between the two teams in Australia, just 11 points separated the sides across the three Tests, with the Qantas Wallabies securing wins via an after-the-final-siren penalty goal in the Melbourne Test, and one with just six minutes remaining in Sydney.
Discipline is always crucial but will be even more so under the circumstances, especially with Wales boasting one of the finest goal-kickers of the modern era in fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked 21 from 24 in this year's Six Nations Grand Slam, before nailing 15 of 16 during the June series in Australia â€“ with his only failed attempt (from long range) rebounding off the goal-posts!
Nor, Deans says, will the Australian squad need any pre-game briefing over the significance of the occasion for their skipper, who finally bows out of the game after twice having shelved retirement deadlines earlier in the year in order to help out his country in a time of need.
"They [the Australian players] know the privilege they have playing alongside Nathan Sharpe in what will be the final outing of one of the most significant careers in Wallaby history," Deans says. "While he will insist â€“ rightly â€“ that the focus is totally on team, he has had a great career and is a great bloke. As a group, we will be doing everything that we can to honour the end of his career appropriately."
The match is the 15th and final for the Wallabies in 2012.
Currently ranked third on the International Rugby Board rankings, a win would see Australia again rise above South Africa [who have completed their 2012 engagements] to end the year as the Wallabies did in 2010 and 2011, rated second only to the All Blacks in the standings. Regardless of the outcome at the Millennium Stadium, Australia will be seeded alongside the top echelon which also includes New Zealand, South Africa and France, for Monday's Rugby World Cup draw to be held in London. This means that the Wallabies cannot draw any of those sides in pool play for the 2015 tournament in England.
A disappointing November has seen Wales fall to ninth ranking, after having climbed as high as fifth following this year's Six Nations Grand Slam. This leaves the fourth-placed side at the 2011 World Cup in danger of drawing two of the game's bigger powers in pool play for the next event in three years' time.
15. Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs)
14. Nick Cummins (Western Force)
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs)
12. Ben Tapuai (Queensland Reds)
11. Drew Mitchell (NSW Waratahs)
10. Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels)
9. Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels)
8. Wycliff Palu (NSW Waratahs)
7. David Pocock (Brumbies)
6. Scott Higginbotham (Melbourne Rebels)
5. Nathan Sharpe (Western Force, captain)
4. Kane Douglas (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
1. Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs)
Run on Reserves:
16. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
17. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
18. Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs)
19. Dave Dennis (NSW Waratahs)
20. Michael Hooper (NSW Waratahs)
21. Brendan McKibbin (NSW Waratahs)
22. Mike Harris (Queensland Reds)
23. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)