Wallaroos shock as Grace Hamilton dumped for NZ opener

Former Wallaroos captain Grace Hamilton has been sensationally dumped from the side's opening O'Reilly Test against the Black Ferns.

Just months after she lost the Australia captaincy to former Sevens star Shannon Parry, the back-rower has failed to gain selection in the matchday 23 with coach Jay Tregonning instead picking young Brumbies star Grace Kemp ahead of the 30-year-old.

Tregonning labelled the selection as the "toughest call" he's had to make since taking over the coaching position at the end of 2021.

"It was a really hard call, you know, Grace [Hamilton] has been a massive part of the team for many years," Tregonning said following the team announcement. "She is obviously performing well, but we feel that there's some things that Grace Kemp has done over these last few days, as well as that time away that warrants her to start.

"Obviously, it's probably the toughest call that I've had to make in my short tenure as Wallaroos coach. Grace has responded really well; her training attitude and efforts today were outstanding. So we'll go through in more detail with Grace about what her work-ons are, but she's still a massive part of this squad."

Kemp made her Wallaroos debut off the bench in the Pacific Four series loss to Canada. The back-rower made an impression on the match almost immediately with a barnstorming midfield run in wet conditions, and she will be expected to do similar again as she joins Parry and Emily Chancellor in the back-row.

In other changes, loosehead prop Bree-Anna Cheetham will make her Test debut after she missed the whole Super W season through injury. Cheetham made her way into the Wallaroos squad for the Pacific Four series but failed to gain selection throughout the tournament.

Cheetham will link up with Bridie O'Gorman and Ashley Marsters to complete the front-row, while veteran Liz Patu has missed selection with Adiana Talakai, Emily Robinson and Eva Karpani round out the front-row reserves.

"Liz and I have had some really good chats about where she's at the moment, and we're all in agreement that a fit and firing Liz Patu is someone that you wouldn't leave out and she's not there at the moment and we've had a chat about that," Tregonning said.

"It was a real mature conversation with Liz about where she's at at the moment physically and, obviously, that opens the door for Bri who came away from a disappointing Pac Four tour where she was in the squad but didn't get her debut; but coming into the starting side we've got all faith that she's going to get in there and do the job."

Following a disappointing Pacific Four series that saw the Wallaroos go down in all three Test matches, focus has turned to their attack after they failed to convert several chances off the set-piece, while their backline failed to fire on several occasions.

"I definitely think it [lineout] was our weapon and our frustration I suppose at the end there with a few missed opportunities within the set-piece, as was some of our attacking shape," Tregonning said. "But we've had numerous conversations over the last few days that our attack is only as good as our set-piece, and then the attack's only good as our breakdown work as well, making sure we're getting good secure ball.

"A big focus for us throughout these seven weeks was the skills under fatigue, both from a set-piece and an attack point of view, so we've had a lot of work on that, Sione's [Fukofuka] done a great job in trying to give the girls some confidence within attack and hopefully we can see a bit of attacking flair on Saturday."

In a boost for the squad, Ivania Wong makes her return coming in on the wing after she suffered a knee injury against the Black Ferns in the opening match of Pacifc Four. Making her debut against Fiji earlier this year, Wong proved herself an elusive ball-carrier with several darting runs across her three Test appearances.

Mahalia Murphy also returns to the starting line-up on the wing, joining Pauline Piliae-Rasabale who slots in at fullback, while Lori Cramer has moved to the bench. In another backline change Illiseva Batibasaga returns to the starting halfback position with Layne Morgan to come off the bench.

Wallaroos: Bree-Anna Cheetham, Ashley Marsters, Bridie O'Gorman, Michaela Leonard, Kaitlin Leaney, Emily Chancellor, Shannon Parry, Grace Kemp, Illiseva Batibasaga, Arabella McKenzie, Ivania EWong, Cecelia Smith, Georgina Friedrichs, Mahalia Murphy, Pauline Piliae-Rasabale. Replacements: Adiana Talakai, Emily Robinson, Eva Karpani, Atasi Lafai, Piper Duck, Layne Morgan, Trilleen Pomare, Lori Cramer.