'Fearless' Aussies to unleash teen Petaia on England

Alastair HIMMER
Australia's head coach Michael Cheika has backed full back Jordan Petaia (AFP Photo/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)
Australia's head coach Michael Cheika has backed full back Jordan Petaia (AFP Photo/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

Oita (Japan) (AFP) - Australia coach Michael Cheika on Thursday named teen sensation Jordan Petaia in his starting side to face England in this weekend's Rugby World Cup quarter-final in a bold gamble.

Cheika's surprise decision to field the explosive 19-year-old at centre is one of five changes for Saturday's clash in Oita with wing Reece Hodge back from a three-game ban and centre James O'Connor dropping to the bench.

Allan Ala'alatoa, Michael Hooper, Will Genia, Christian Lealiifano also return to the starting line-up after Australia beat Georgia 27-8 in their final pool game.

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Petaia has played just two Tests, both on the wing, but Wallabies selectors have backed him to make an impact at outside centre, where he has played for Super Rugby side Queensland Reds.

It represents something of a risk by Cheika, who also named centurion Genia at scrum-half in place of Nic White, with Kurtley Beale poised to start at full-back.

"I trust him infinitely," Cheika said of Petaia. "He's looking good as gold. It's going to be fast and aggressive but I just know he will rise to the challenge -- I've seen it in him."

Petaia became Australia's youngest-ever World Cup player with a lively Test debut -- when he scored one try and made another -- in the 45-10 thrashing of Uruguay two weeks ago.

But he will come under heavy fire from England, whose coach Eddie Jones has promised to defend with "brutality" as he looks to extend a six-game win streak over the Aussies.

O'Connor, meanwhile, has paid the price for a dip in form after a decent start in Australia's opening Pool D win over Fiji.

- 'Fear is dead' -

Hodge was slapped with a three-game suspension for a high tackle in that 39–21 victory but Cheika has kept faith with the 25-year-old by ushering him back into the starting line-up.

Petaia will be 19 years 218 days on Saturday, when he will become the second-youngest player to feature in a World Cup knockout match after Wales's George North in 2011.

"I'm really excited for Jordan," said fellow centre Samu Kerevi. "He's got a pretty good head on him. He's still writing his own story and he's going to be one of the greats."

England, who beat Jones's Australia in the 2003 final, sprung a surprise by dropping fly-half George Ford to the bench and giving Henry Slade his first start of the tournament.

Slade also tipped Petaia to have an impact this weekend.

"Yes he's a young lad but he's a strong lad, good footwork and is strong in the outside channels so we know he will definitely be a threat," he said.

"He has been picked because he's a bloody good player -- we have got to keep an eye on him."

Cheika, meanwhile, warned that England's recent domination would count for little at the weekend.

"The fear inside us is dead," he shrugged. "We're not afraid to go there and get it, and that means it's going to be a great game."

Australia (15-1):

Kurtley Beale; Reece Hodge, Jordan Petaia, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete; Christian Lealiifano, Will Genia; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (capt), David Pocock; Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda; Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio

Replacements: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Nic White, Matt To'omua, James O'Connor

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