THE NSW Waratahs, featuring Berry's Will Miller, will open their Super Rugby campaign with one of the oldest and most experienced mid-field partnerships in the competition when Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper start against the Hurricanes on Saturday.
The pair have played only 10 minutes of rugby together but separately bring more than 140 representative games and 400 first grade games of experience, plus buckets of star power, to the NSW line-up.
Dual international Hunt, 32, will start at inside centre and 116-Test veteran Ashley-Cooper, 34, at outside centre, after Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson decided to ease regular No.12 Kurtley Beale into the season.
"The bonus with both of them is that they can pick things up very quickly, they're very much on the same wavelength, talking about the game, so that's been relatively easy," Gibson said. "The key thing is they've only played 10 minutes and [Ashley-Cooper] only 40 minutes so there's a combination to grow there."
Beale is the only fit Test player Gibson has held back from the first Waratahs line-up of 2019, leaving him out of the squad entirely.
Three-time John Eales Medallist Israel Folau will start at fullback, Bernard Foley is back in the drivers' seat at No.10, Michael Hooper will captain the side from No.7, while Rob Simmons and Sekope Kepu return to the tight five and hooker Tolu Latu will come off the bench.
Jack Dempsey and Ned Hanigan will also start in the back row, with Dempsey wearing the No.8 jersey and Hanigan starting at blindside breakaway.
Hunt, in NSW colours for the first time in his career, looks set to become Beale's regular understudy in a season overshadowed by the looming World Cup.
Beale played the largest number of minutes last season and while Rugby Australia's rotational policy comes into play, Gibson is also determined to use more of his squad over the 18-week regular season.
"[Hunt] came to us in January. You never know what shape they're in and he soon presented in excellent shape and very quickly got up to speed," Gibson said. "We're really satisfied with where he was at, enough to give him that start and get some minutes out of him."
Ashley-Cooper is being thrown in the deep end after star pre-season performer Lalakai Foketi strained a hamstring in the side's trial match against the Brumbies last week. Plans to give the returning Waratah a 30-minute cameo in Goulburn went out the window and Gibson has decided to lean on his defence and experience to make sure the Hurricanes do not get off to a flyer at Brookvale Oval.
"Both of them really thrive on the defensive side of the ball," Gibson said. "I've said all year that's the biggest area of growth for this team, making sure we're a tougher prospect to break down. They bring that in spades, just by being themselves, so it's been really easy trying to integrate them into a philosphy and a mindset that we're trying to adopt."
Curtis Rona and Alex Newsome will start on the wings, with Rona providing cover at No.13, while Jake Gordon starts at halfback, with Nick Phipps recovering from a calf injury he picked up in the Wallabies' fitness camp last month. Gibson has named Mitch Short, Mack Mason and Cam Clark as bench cover in the backs.
In the forwards, Rob Simmons and Jed Holloway start in the second row, while Sekope Kepu will add Test class to the front row, where he starts alongside hooker Damien Fitzpatrick and loosehead prop Harry Johnson-Holmes.
On the bench, second row Lachlan Swinton was rewarded for bagging a double in Goulburn with the chance to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench, while props Rory O'Connor and Chris Talakai will also make their debuts - with Shoalhaven Rugby Club product Will Miller also named to start on the bench.
Waratahs: Israel Folau, Alex Newsome, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Karmichael Hunt, Curtis Rona, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper (c), Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Jed Holloway, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrcik, Harry Johnson-Holmes. Res: Tolu Latu, Rory O'Connor, Chris Talakai, Lachlan Swinton, Will Miller, Mitch Short, Mack Mason, Cam Clark.