James Hanson has absorbed plenty of advice since Brendon Cannon started mentoring his primary school rugby team, but the Wallaby-in-waiting didn't need reminding about the dangers of riling All Black centurion Keven Mealamu.
The Queenslander is on the verge of earning his first test cap in tomorrow's Bledisloe Cup clash at Suncorp Stadium, and although his distant relative called to congratulate the 24-year-old when he replaced injured reserve hooker Saia Fainga'a on Tuesday, Cannon did not dwell on his infamous fight with Mealamu in Wellington eight years ago.
Hanson, 16 at the time, remembers it vividly anyway so was already aware of the risks involved in trying to intimidate the hard-headed hooker who joins Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina in New Zealand rugby's 100 club.
"That was a big occasion, it was pretty funny," said Hanson, recalling the punch-up that left both hookers seething, sinbinned and requiring stitches at Westpac Stadium on a wild night in the capital.
"It would be good if I get to shape up against him on the weekend," he said, before realising what he said and proceeding with caution: "I won't be doing that, probably."
Cannon, whose wife is Hanson's cousin, has offered some insight into facing Mealamu and Andrew Hore, though the rookie rake has already gained some personal experience during Super Rugby.
"It's been great for me to play against them because I see them as two of the top hookers in the world."
Hanson placed Mealamu on a special pedestal, and not solely because of the 33-year-old's longevity.
"He's been someone that I've looked up to because of his stature. He's quite a short and sort of small hooker."
They are both listed at 1.81-metres, Mealamu is a touch heavier at 106kg and Hanson is impressed with how the Aucklander exploits his low centre of gravity.
"It (his height) definitely doesn't work against him at all. He's pretty amazing; he plays a lot bigger than what he is."
Hanson backs up Tatafu Polota-Nau and given the Tongan's occasionally kamikaze approach to self-preservation he is prepared to enter the fray at any stage.
"I'm used to being on the bench, which isn't a great attribute, but the call can happen at any moment -- in the first minute or the 79th - so whatever it is I'll be thrilled to get on there."
Emphasising the Wallabies crippling casualty toll in 2012, Hanson is the 39th player utilised by Robbie Deans and was the first of two alterations required to match day squad's front row stocks - James Slipper was thrust into the run-on side at tighthead yesterday when Ben Alexander withdrew with a wrist injury.
Slipper, who makes his first start against the All Blacks 24 tests into his career, described the opportunity as "a dream come true" despite the All Blacks imperious form - and apparent confidence given powerful tighthead Owen Franks has only been named among the reserves.
The luxury of using Franks as an impact player illustrates the contrast in strength between the opposing benches.
Outside of returning wing Drew Mitchell and prop Sekope Kepu, who are playing their first tests since August, the other five reserves have less than 20 tests between them.
Slipper sought to put a brave face on the wounded Wallabies predicament as they try and prevent the full-strength All Blacks equalling the world record of 17 consecutive test wins.
"It's been the story of our year so far, injuries. It's a test of our character as a squad," the 23-year-old said.
The Wallabies are friendless at $A5.75 ($7.27) outsiders with TAB Sportsbet and have been given a 13-1/2 points start - underscoring the gulf between the world champions and second best.
Slipper had no quibble with the market but vowed the Wallabies were determined to salvage some pride from an otherwise grim winter.
"It'd pretty much turn our year around," he said, when asked what a rare trans-Tasman success equated to.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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