ISRAEL Folau will start his first rugby game at outside centre this Sunday after Rob Horne was ruled out for at least one month with a fractured hand.
Horne’s injury will see a major backline reshuffle when NSW take on Melbourne Rebels at Allianz Stadium, with Kurtley Beale poised to take Folau’s fullback position.
While Folau has spent time at outside centre in games against Queensland last Sunday and the Brumbies on March 4, this weekend will be the first time he has started in the No. 13 jersey.
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said he would have no concerns about Folau handling the move to outside centre, which is the most difficult position on the field to defend.
“If I choose to put Folau at No. 13, at the moment it looks like a very good opportunity for him to play a different position,” Gibson said.
“Given our injuries and trying to get our best players on the field, that’s a configuration that looks appealing.
“I’m absolutely confident that he would fill that position very, very well.
“The configuration we ran in the second half against Queensland with Bernard Foley, David Horwitz and Folau in the front line, Beale at fullback, that’s one way we can go. Then potentially we could have Andrew Kellaway at fullback with Beale upfront.”
Either scenario means Folau will be at outside centre.
The Rebels have injury concerns of their own at No. 13, with former All Black Tamati Ellison (hamstring) and candidates Tom English (knee) and Jonah Placid (shoulder) expected to miss the Sydney clash.
Folau will likely line up against rookie Sione Tuipulotu, but Gibson said it wouldn’t matter who the superstar was marking or how they might try to expose his inexperience in that position.
“Regardless of who they put there, Folau is a pretty good player, I think they’d be more worried about him than we would,” Gibson said.
Horne has suspected Bennett’s fracture, which is a break at the base of the thumb, and is expected to miss four to six weeks which includes big games looming against the Brumbies and Stormers.
Meanwhile, NSW’s hooking crisis has deepened with Tolu Latu ruled out for six to eight weeks with a grade two hamstring strain, on the back of Tatafu Polota-Nau’s long-term injury.
Hugh Roach will lead the scrums and lineouts at hooker, with rookie Folau Fainga’a and veteran Luke Holmes expected to be called in as cover.
“It’s something we’ll have to look at, Folau’s in his first year of Shute Shield,” Gibson said.
The Reds, and other rivals, have successful targeted NSW’s scrums and lineouts and NSW will the injuries to Latu and Polota-Nau only increases pressure on the forward pack.
“It’s a continual work-on for us, at times we looked really comfortable in the scrum, we looked very comfortable on our own ball so there’s some positives there, we’re definitely improving,” Gibson said.
“One thing we’re really going to have to focus on this week is our lineout possession, I feel like we’re not getting enough quality possession out of that.
“On Sunday we survived on 34 per cent possession, for a ball-in-hand team that’s pretty low.”
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 David Dennis, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Benn Robinson
Replacements: 16 James Hilterbrand, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Tom Robertson, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Sam Lousi, 21 Wycliff Palu, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Andrew Kellaway
Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Sefa Naivalu
Date: Sunday, April 3
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 16:05 local (06:05 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann, Michael Hogan
TMO: George Ayoub