SCOTT HIGGINBOTHAM will miss the two most crucial Test matches of the Wallabies' end of year tour after pleading guilty to striking All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
The Australian back-rower was handed a two-Test suspension last night for kneeing and head-butting McCaw during Saturday night's 18-18 draw between the Wallabies and All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium.
It is a good result for the Wallabies, who feared losing him for the entire tour. But it is a blow to Australia's chances in the northern hemisphere next month, because he will miss the crucial first two Tests, against France and England, before being free to play Italy and Wales late next month and early December.
France and England, ranked fourth and fifth in the world respectively, will be targeting the games as opportunities to improve their IRB rankings before the 2015 Rugby World Cup draw, which will be held on December 3, two days after Australia plays Wales in Cardiff.
SANZAR judicial officer Jannie Lubbe deemed Higginbotham's strikes to be ''low entry level'', calling the knee to McCaw's head, as Higginbotham was pulled to the ground after a tackle, ''more of a bump than a hit''.
''The head-butt was reckless and not executed with much force,'' Lubbe said. ''McCaw was not injured and play resumed.''
The decision will perplex some who noted that Springboks forward Eben Etzebeth's head-butt on Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe last month, for which he was also given a two-week suspension, did not appear to make contact.
Higginbotham's physicality will be missed on the tour but is tempered to some degree by the return of Waratahs No.8 Wycliff Palu, who made an immediate impact for the Wallabies against the All Blacks at the weekend, and the availability of Radike Samo and Dave Dennis.
The anticipated playing return of David Pocock, coupled with the strong performances of back-up opensides Michael Hooper and Liam Gill, also give coach Robbie Deans options in the back row.
In other news, Waratahs back Bernard Foley has put Test-capped teammate Berrick Barnes on notice with a declaration he wants to make the No.10 jersey his own next year. Foley played at five-eighth as a junior but was used by former coach Michael Foley at fullback for most of last season after joining the Waratahs, with Barnes at No.10 or inside-centre.
Foley intended transitioning his new recruit to five-eighth as he gained experience and used him there towards the end of the season, with Barnes outside and Adam Ashley-Cooper at fullback.
Bernard Foley said yesterday he enjoyed playing both positions but wanted to return to the position in which he was most comfortable.
''I've made it known I want to play in the front line but it comes back to personnel we have available and the structure [the coach] wants to play,'' he said.
New coach Michael Cheika has made it clear positions are there for the taking next season, and reiterated that yesterday in reference to the No.10 jersey.
''If a player thinks the best opportunity for him is in a certain position or if he enjoys playing a certain position the most, then that's where he's going to get the chance to play,'' Cheika said, adding that he would probably play Foley at both fullback and five-eighth.
Elsewhere, injured Wallabies halfback Will Genia is expected to announce this week he is staying in Australia. Genia was considering a sabbatical from rugby and a move to Japan but is understood to have resolved his contracting issues with the ARU, and will play alongside his estranged teammate Quade Cooper in the Queensland Reds line-up next year.