June International Tours

Gower hoping to end Italy’s losing streak


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Italy is hoping a former Australian rugby league international can help it break an eight-match losing streak when the Azzurri meet the Wallabies on Saturday at Canberra Stadium.

Craig Gower, who played halfback for Australia in the 13-man code, will make his international rugby union debut at flyhalf for Italy. Gower has spent the last two seasons playing rugby union in France and qualifies to play because of his Italian grandfather, Emilio.

Another Australian-born player, Luke McLean, was selected for Italy at fullback.

Italy will play Australia in two tests before a one-off match against New Zealand. Australia warmed up for its first test of the season with a 55-7 win over the Barbarians last weekend in Sydney.

Gower, 31, who appeared in 18 rugby league tests for Australia, admitted he will have some prematch nerves against Australia and rival flyhalf Matt Giteau.

“There are more nerves involved this time around, because obviously it is the unknown for me. It’s that next step,” Gower told the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday.

“You can look at it both ways. It can be daunting, but you can also treat it as a great challenge. I’m going to go in there positively, and I know it is a great yardstick to come up against.

Obviously, I’ll hear the brunt of it at the end of the game if it’s no good. But I’m delighted to get such an opportunity to be up against such a great player in Matt.” Gower has played most of his time at French team Bayonne in the centers.

“I’m still learning and have a long way to go, because it’s my fifth match playing flyhalf,” Gower said. “It’s going to be a tough ask for the team and myself, but that’s what sport is about …

challenges.” He said the language barrier could also pose problems.

“Obviously, the calls are in Italian, and I’ve learned those calls,” Gower said.

“Conversation with the guys is difficult though, and I feel a little bit bad because I can’t communicate as well as I want to. But all the guys have been great in trying to welcome me into the squad. Now I have to repay them by playing well.”

Australia opens its 2009 test season with 18-year-old James O’Connor at fullback. At 18 years and 126 days, O’Connor became the second-youngest player ever for Australia when he went on as a replacement in the 30-20 win over Italy at Padova last November.

The youngest Wallaby was Queensland winger Brian Ford, who was 18 years and 90 days when he appeared against New Zealand in 1957.

Despite playing mostly in the midfield for the Western Force in the Super 14, O’Connor is viewed as a longer-term option at fullback at the international level.

Australia coach Robbie Deans said the match will be an opportunity for O’Connor to prove he belongs in the test arena.

“He’s clearly a talent, but you need more than that from this point on, so that will be his challenge,” Deans said.

“There’ll be less time and space, so his decision-making will become the priority from this point on because you can’t play the game as an individual.”

Test veterans Lote Tuqiri and Phil Waugh were overlooked when the squad was named. Veteran Wallaby openside flanker George Smith, who plays for the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies in Super 14, will be playing in his 97th test, and his first in front of his home fans.

Australia has won all 11 tests against Italy since their first meeting in Rovigo, Italy in 1983.

— Teams:

Australia: James O’Connor, Lachie Turner, Stirling Mortlock (captain), Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau, Luke Burgess; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Al Baxter, James Horwill, Nathan Sharpe, Dean Mumm, George Smith, Richard Brown.

Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ben Alexander, Peter Kimlin, David Pocock, Josh Valentine, Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper.

Italy: Luke McLean, Ka

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