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Horwill stripped of Australia captaincy vs England

In dropping Will Genia, cutting ties with James O'Connor and recalling Quade Cooper in his four months as Australia coach, Ewen McKenzie has shown he won't dodge the big calls in his attempt to return the Wallabies to the top of world rugby.

He might just have made his biggest call yet on Thursday. James Horwill was stripped of the captaincy for Saturday's test match against England at Twickenham, with McKenzie giving the armband to unproven No. 8 Ben Mowen, who only made his international debut in June.

"By his own lofty standards, James would admit he hasn't been on peak form so we've made the decision to remove the added pressures and responsibilities of being a captain," McKenzie said. "He hasn't had a smooth run. So at this stage I want him to be the hard-working abrasive second-rower I know he can be. We need his 'A' game."

Just as surprisingly, McKenzie handed the vice-captaincy to Cooper, continuing the maverick flyhalf's international rehabilitation. Cooper only recently returned to the squad after falling out with previous coach Robbie Deans, having described the atmosphere in the national set-up under Deans as "toxic."

McKenzie said Cooper had "made massive strides in the last 12 months." "I'm human so I had those thoughts of whether I'd play for Australia again," Cooper said Thursday. "I've got a pretty good life when you look at it. When you look at some other people's lives, sometimes they have a much harder life than you do.

"So you've got to look at what you have and be grateful for it. That's all I'm doing now, which is different to me a few years ago." It's been a miserable 2013 for Australia, losing a series to the British and Irish Lions, sacking its coach and then winning just two of its six matches in the Rugby Championship.

Things might just be looking up, though, as McKenzie's no-nonsense methods start to kick in. He has shown his disciplinarian streak by dropping O'Connor — one of the stars of Australian rugby — after a series of off-field misdemeanors.

"It is part of creating the culture that he wants to have in this Australian team," said Genia, the brilliant scrumhalf who found himself out of the team at one stage under McKenzie. "It is very hard line. There are no gray areas. You are either on the right side of the edge or not."

And results on the pitch are slowly improving. A 54-17 thrashing of Argentina away in the final match in the Rugby Championship was following by a strong display in a 41-33 loss to New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup this month.

It means the end-of-season European tour, which starts at Twickenham this weekend, is far from a holiday. There are places are up for grabs and selectors in impress. There was speculation that Horwill wouldn't have even made the team against England had Rob Simmons not gone down with a knee injury.

Meanwhile, Matt Toomua was preferred at inside center to Christian Leali'ifano, while wing Nick Cummins is back after recovering from a broken hand. Five players who toured Australia with the Lions — Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt and Alex Corbisiero — are missing for the English, leaving coach Stuart Lancaster to juggle his squad.

Former rugby league international Joel Tomkins will make his debut at center in an untested midfield partnership with Billy Twelvetrees, and Lee Dickson was selected over Ben Youngs for the scrumhalf berth. Courtney Lawes is back at lock in place of Parling.

There are two sets of brothers in the squad, with prop Mako Vunipola joining No. 8 Billy Vunipola in the starting pack. While Ben Youngs is on the bench, Tom Youngs starts at hooker. The match takes place 10 years after the rivals met in the World Cup final in Sydney, with England coming out on top. England captain Chris Robshaw is already looking ahead to the 2015 competition, held on home soil, and making Twickenham a fortress.

"We need to have a sense of personal pride because it's our home stadium," Robshaw said. "If you look at the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, England had been unbeaten at home since 1999. It's about making it a really tough place for people to come and play."

Teams:

England: Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Joel Tomkins, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde, Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson; Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Billy Vunipola. Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler, David Wilson, Dave Attwood, Ben Morgan, Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, Ben Foden.

Australia: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Nick Cummins, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Ben Mowen (captain), Michael Hooper, Scott Fardy, James Horwill, Sitaleki Timani, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, James Slipper. Reserves: Saia Fainga'a, Benn Robinson, Sekope Kepu, Kane Douglas, Ben McCalman, Nic White, Christian Leali'ifano, Bernard Foley.

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