Smith to skipper Wallabies

George Smith will captain Australia in the absence of Stirling Mortlock, the Australian media reports.

Despite a concerted push from some influential figures in the Australian game to have Berrick Barnes installed in the role, coach Robbie Deans is widely expected to hand the responsibility to the experienced Smith.

It is, however, an open secret that Barnes is being groomed for captaincy. The Wallabies roll him out at most media opportunities – presumably to give him experience in that aspect of the job – and he is already a strong and respected leader within the squad.

In terms of team changes for their Test against New Zealand in Sydney next week, it seems increasingly likely that Adam Ashley-Cooper will replace the injured Mortlock at outside centre, with Ryan Cross providing cover on the wood, while James O’Connor fills the void at fullback.

Deans is confident of the 19-year-old’s ability to front in a Test of this magnitude.

‘He’s always had the talent, and he’s a young man learning in the Test arena, which is very hard,’ Deans told rugbyheaven.com.au.

‘Most young men get to learn the game at club level, where they can go back and seek the wise counsel of elders, whereas James is having his learning experience in a Test, where he has millions watching. The scrutiny is enormous and the consequence of error is often enormous, so it’s tough.

‘But he’s shown the courage and capability. When you look at his response from Eden Park to Newlands, it was remarkable, and he enjoys it. Yes, he’s capable of starting. He wants to be out there, and he’s more than ready.’

The other likely change will come in the back row where Rocky Elsom is expected to start, with Richard Brown shifting to No 8 in place of Wycliff Palu. There are potential changes in the front and second row as well, with prop Benn Robinson and lock Dean Mumm all pushing hard for a starting berth.

Elsom stressed the importance of the Sydney fixture.

‘We can’t drop any more games,’ he said. ‘There has been some definite negatives, which everyone would have noticed, and it is going to be a challenge to get them out of our performance.

‘There are a couple of things that are lingering, and they have cost us the last two games. That has made it very hard for us in the tournament, and if we don’t get them out of the game, it will be hard going forward.’