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Flyhalf Quade Cooper will make a final case for Wallabies selection when he leads the Queensland Reds against the British and Irish Lions Saturday in what is shaping as the tourists’ biggest test so far.
Australia coach Robbie Deans will be in the stands in Brisbane as the unpredictable Cooper does his best to halt the Lions’ increasing momentum ahead of the three-Test series starting on June 22.
The Lions have cruised to crushing victories over the Barbarians and Western Force, totting up 17 tries, as they build towards the games against Australia when they will seek their first Test series win since 1997.
The Reds, 2011 Super Rugby champions, may be without seven current national squad members, but they have named their best available players, including nine capped Wallabies in a strong starting line-up.
Lions captain Sam Warburton will make his debut after missing the first two games with a knee injury, but Cooper will be the man in focus as he bids to force his way into Deans’ final Test squad to be announced on Tuesday.
Cooper, who was fined and suspended after publicly criticising Deans last year, was left out of the preliminary squad of 25 in a move which provoked debate among Australian fans and media.
“Quade is a proven winner and real facilitator of success here at the Reds and the reality is that we win more games with him in the side,” said Reds head coach Ewen McKenzie.
Deans has called for the mercurial Cooper to be more assertive in defence and attack, and he will need to pull out a big game against England’s Owen Farrell to enhance his selection chances.
Warburton was in no doubt about Cooper’s qualities and he said the Lions would face a challenge of a different order to their straightforward wins in Hong Kong and Perth.
“(Cooper) is an outstanding player with great footwork and I’m sure he’ll pose a different threat at 10 than what we’ve faced in the last two weeks,” Warburton said.
“He’ll definitely be an attacking threat and that’s what you want to test your defence.”
Warburton will also want to hit the ground running he joins compatriots Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate in an-all Welsh back row after recovering from a knee ligament strain.
Warburton said he needed quickly to hit form to secure his Test spot following outstanding performances by Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien in the number seven jersey in the opening tour games.
“All the back-rowers have done exceptionally well, which makes selection very difficult,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about this game for quite a while, it can’t come quick enough, and I’m desperate to get out on the pitch.”
Warburton will be one of six players to make their run-on tour debuts, with prop Gethin Jenkins, English brothers Tom and Ben Youngs, prop Matt Stevens and lock Geoff Parling all getting their first starts.
Queensland were the last Australian state team to beat the Lions in 1971, a fact used as motivation by McKenzie ahead of Saturday’s game.
“We’ve spoken as a group about the significance of these opportunities and there isn’t a player out there who wouldn’t want to replicate the heroics of the 1971 Queensland side,” he said.
“History suggests that’s a mammoth challenge, but we’ll go out there on Saturday with plenty of good intentions and with a commitment to giving a strong account of ourselves across the entire 80 minutes.”
The Lions’ Irish prop Cian Healy is out with an ankle injury, but he also avoided a lengthy ban on Friday when he was cleared of biting scrumhalf Brett Sheehan during Wednesday’s game against Western Force.
Queensland – Ben Lucas; Rod Davies, Ben Tapuai, Anthony Faingaa, Luke Morahan; Quade Cooper (capt), Nick Frisby; Jake Schatz, Beau Robinson, Eddie Quirk; Ed O’Donoghue, Adam Wallace-Harrison; Greg Holmes, James Hanson, Ben Daley
Replacements: Albert Anae, Sam Denny, Jono Owen, Radike Samo, Jarrad Butler, Jono Lance, Mike Harris, Dom Shipperley
Lions – Stuart Hogg; Alex Cuthbert, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Davies, Tommy Bowe; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (capt), Dan Lydiate; Geoff Parling, Richie Gray; Matt Stevens, Tom Youngs, Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Mako Vunipola, Adam Jones, Paul O’Connell, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, George North