By Nick Said
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Australia believe Tom Banks is the player to fill the gaping hole left in the number 15 jersey by the sacking of Israel Folau, and the Brumbies fullback is set for a baptism of fire in the cauldron of Ellis Park on Saturday.
Australia begin the post-Folau era with a Rugby Championship clash against the Springboks on the South African Highveld, where the ball moves quicker, and flies further, through the air.
Coach Michael Cheika has only two months to make his mind up on the fullback position before the start of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Banks, 25, who has three previous caps but will make his first start, has been selected ahead of the vastly more experienced Kurtley Beale.
But he has big shoes to fill as the Boks believe Folau’s absence will stifle Australia.
“It is not a state secret that Folau was one of the best in the air in the world, they will lose something without him. I think they will miss that,” Bok skipper Eben Etzebeth said on Friday.
It makes Banks’s appearance an important audition for the job on a permanent basis.
“I don’t think you can deny Tom Banks on his form from Super Rugby,” Cheika said. “He’s been outstanding for the Brumbies and I’m sure he’s going to do well.
“He reads the game well, he knows where he wants to pop up and attack, and he will work hard in defense.
“He’s got good pace. There’s going to be a lot of kicking threats from South Africa so he will cover that terrain in the back field very well.”
Australia captain Michael Hooper also expects an aerial bombardment from the Boks, but says Banks will have an important role in ensuring the side exit their 22 safely.
“Getting out of your own zone is such a big part of the game. South Africa have had a strong exit policy in recent years, we don’t know what they will bring in this game with Elton (Jantjies) at 10. Anything goes,” Hooper said.
“Aerial (balls), like the breakdown, is a big contest. It’s an opportunity to get the ball back straight away.”
Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia in May on the recommendation after a social media post in which he said hell awaited “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers”, as well as others the fundamentalist Christian considered to be sinners.
(Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Ed Osmond)