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No fear: Why 'bold' Petaia selection will work for Wallabies

OITA, Japan --Two-time World Cup winner Tim Horan has backed the Wallabies' "bold" selection of teenager Jordan Petaia at outside centre for Saturday's quarterfinal with England, saying the boom rookie reminds him of former midfield partner Jason Little.

The Wallabies on Thursday sprung a major selection surprise in naming Petaia alongside Queensland Reds teammate Samu Kerevi in the midfield, after the 19-year-old had played his first two Tests on the wing over the past fortnight.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said Thursday evening he and his fellow selectors hadn't earmarked this game pre-tournament as a match in which Petaia would shift closer to the action, but the Queenslander's switch to 13 was instead a result of his training and play over the last few weeks.

And Horan, who was named Player of the Tournament in 1999, backed the call, saying there was little risk in Petaia's move to the centres as his fellow Queenslander had "no fear".

"I don't think it's high-risk at all," Horan told ESPN. "What Michael Cheika's done is he's had this squad mentality for a long time now -- you've got a new 9-10 combination again, it's all interchanging -- but he's had a squad mentality and because they've been training together and playing together for so long, that it doesn't matter who you select.

"It's a bold selection but it's certainly not a risky one.

"I don't see it as a risk, I just see it as a great opportunity as he's young and he's got no fear. Going into these Test matches when you don't have a lot of fear and people don't have a lot of footage on you, they don't know what to expect."

If you ask the Wallabies about Petaia, they say the hype is real.

Rugby followers outside of Australia might have only see the 19-year-old Test rookie in action over the past two weeks in Japan, but he has been progressing through the Australian rugby pathway over the last few years.

Wallabies teammate Will Genia, who will wind up his storied Test career whenever Australia's run in Japan comes to an end, said Petaia had already shown he could be something special.

"I think the biggest thing I've found with young guys coming through is just making them comfortable enough to be themselves off the field, in and around the group, but most importantly on the field, allowing them to express themselves," Genia said.

"I rate Jordan very highly, he's a player who could be one of the best players in the world in the not too distant future. So I think, personally, I've just wanted to make him as comfortable as I can so that he can be himself genuinely, whether that's in training off the field or most importantly on the field.

"I love seeing him express himself, and the more he does that, the more comfortable he is, the better he's going to be for us as a team."

Wallabies great Horan formed one of rugby's all-time great midfield partnerships alongside fellow Queenslander Jason Little. And the former inside centre says he sees shades of the "athlete" Little was in Petaia.

"Well the most talented athlete that I ever saw was Jason Little," Horan told ESPN. "He could have played 100 Test matches for the Australian cricket team or he could have won close to a gold medal for high jump, he was such a talented athlete; not just a rugby player but an athlete.

"So he sort of reminds me of the way that Jason could move and could run, and could then identify space and offload. Jordan's got a long way to go, but I tell you what he's not far off it."

Petaia will play outside Red teammate Samu Kerevi who remains, despite having his running style clipped in the Wallabies' loss to Wales in Tokyo, one of the most dangerous ball-carriers left in the tournament.

Kerevi's threat hasn't been lost on England either with coach Eddie Jones shifting his own powerhouse ball-runner Manu Tuilagi into inside centre to set up a monster head-to-head clash in the midfield channel.

"Yeah, it's going to be great," Horan said of the Kerevi-Tuilagi showdown. "And that's why you sacrifice so much; that's why you train so hard. Moments like this you can't shy away from it and say 'I'm so nervous, I don't want to play,' you've got to really look forward to it.

"I know Samu, he's come a long way in the last two years; he was just a crash-ball [option] probably two or three years ago and he's really developed his game and has started to look outside of him for other opportunities."

The Wallabies say they haven't stopped to think about their status as underdogs -- most bookmakers have them as more than 3-1 outsiders - and will instead let their rugby do the talking on Saturday evening in Oita.

Australia have shown they can be dangerous when they hold onto the ball, particularly late in their pool matches against Fiji and Wales, and Horan said it was vital they stick to that up-tempo style and embraced the attacking spirit of hosts Japan.

"They [Australia] can win the game if they don't try and bash the door down of England, they've got a great defensive line," Horan told ESPN. "I think we've got to play a high-paced, high-skilled game of rugby, similar to how Japan played on Sunday; really fast-paced game of rugby.

"And once you get that happening, you have to get some offloads; if you get some offloads away then you get in behind this very strong England defensive line and that's when it starts to open up."