Aussie soap opera spurs warning for All Blacks
TOBY ROBSON IN AUCKLAND
Confidence and continuity versus confusion and conflict, the All Blacks' biggest concern will be if the Wallabies are performing rugby's version of the rope-a-dope.
While All Blacks coach Steve Hansen yesterday morning announced a solitary change to his side for tomorrow night's Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park, Australia's buildup was spiralling into fiasco across the Tasman.
By day's end the callup of loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett for the injured Tony Woodcock seemed like an advertising break in an Aussie soap opera to rival Home and Away.
Hansen cautioned against writing off the wounded Wallabies, drawing comparisons with the buildup to last year's World Cup final against France.
But that was before coach Robbie Deans dumped fullback Kurtley Beale and did an about-turn in recalling first five-eighth Quade Cooper.
It was also before former Australian coach Alan Jones labelled Deans “out of his depth” and “not up to it” in a radio interview.
And it did not take account of Cooper's bizarre press conference, or the “corked backside” at training that saw Tatafu Polota-Nau hand the hooking duties to Stephen Moore, then say he might yet be fit for a reserves bench still to be named.
Cooper may have been smart to offer just 24 words on his selection in Sydney, confirming he was “back”, “healthy” and “ready to go” before putting down his microphone and walking away from gathered media.
What he and his team-mates are thinking right now might not be fit for public consumption.
Cooper will be wondering, along with the rest of us, how after being told a week ago he was short of match play, he has gathered up the necessary game time?
Instead, Deans will lob his playmaker back into the Eden Park cauldron that boiled him alive during the World Cup semifinal, when it could have been done in front of 76,000 friendlies in Sydney last Saturday.
If Cooper has been selected to spark the attack, his cause has not been helped by the absence of Beale, dumped after one off night and replaced by the dependable but limited Adam Ashley Cooper.
It was one of several selections from Deans that resonate with the rearranging of deck chairs.
Hard tackling Anthony Fainga'a loses his place at second five-eighth to Berrick Barnes, who kicked goals but crippled his backs in Sydney by standing so deep his team-mates needed scuba gear to recover their back tracking attack.
Drew Mitchell adds some pace on the wing, but, like Beale a week earlier, he is short of game time.
And let's not forget that captain David Pocock and tighthead prop Sekope Kepu are out with knee injuries, replaced by Michael Hooper and Ben Alexander respectively. At least Hooper, a standout for the Brumbies this year, provides a running game that Pocock does not.
It is about here that Hansen starts to feel uncomfortable. “Go back six months and we had a few people saying the same thing about the French: we beat them by a point,” Hansen said.
“Our job is to prepare well, respect the opposition and keep grounded. The challenge is about our opponent, but also about us playing better than we have before.”
That seems likely, with the All Blacks camp unified in the belief they were well off their game last time out, but Australia will be hurting and in rugby that counts.
Men like Will Genia, Ashley-Cooper, Nathan Sharpe and Moore have pride and will not roll over without a fight. But it will take something special to recover from a week where nothing has gone right.
WALLABIES: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, Rob Horne, Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia (c), Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis, Nathan Sharpe, Sitaleki Timani, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Benn Robinson. Reserves: TBA.
ALL BLACKS: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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