Ashley-Cooper braced for Fekitoa challenge
Having spent almost a decade getting to grips with the guile of Conrad Smith, Wallabies veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper is braced for the more direct challenge posed by the long-standing All Black's potential successor in the midfield.
Ashley-Cooper's match-up with All Black rookie Malakai Fekitoa is a feature of Sunday's penultimate round Super Rugby clash between the Highlanders and the table-topping Waratahs at Allianz Stadium, and an assignment the 94-cap utility back is wary off.
The pair faced each other during a pre-season trial in Newcastle - where wet weather dictated attacking opportunities were limited - and since then Ashley-Cooper has followed the 22-year-old's development with interest.
"He's been having a great season. It'll be a great test for me personally," says Ashley-Cooper.
"He's certainly made a lot of yards in his ball carries. We're certainly aware of those threats, but they've got threats all over the park," he said.
Ashley-Cooper nominated in-form test fullback Ben Smith and wing Patrick Osbourne as other dangers out wide and, after watching 40 minutes of video, realised the Highlanders were more intent on attack than last Saturday's opponent, the Brumbies.
"You need to deal with them up front initially so the blokes like Fekitoa, Osbourne and Smith aren't getting that front foot ball," he said.
"That's when they're at their most dangerous. From a unit perspective we'll certainly have to be very strong throughout the midfield to stop their momentum by not giving them the time and space other teams have been giving them," he said.
Finessing the transition from attack to defence has been a focus as the Waratahs strive to secure a home semifinal.
"On the weekend we played a team (Brumbies) that were more than likely going to kick from turnovers. This weekend we're facing a team that has a lot of dangerous threats in their counterattack. If we turn the ball over they're more likely to attack straight away."
Waratahs' coach Michaelk Cheika concurred with his senior back that a Highlanders side with play-off aspirations had to be controlled at the breakdown and set piece to negate a potent backline.
"The focus has to go up front and round the playmakers that will liberate Fekitoa to do what he can do. If the inside dominates we're gone regardless."
Although the Waratahs have the luxury of already claiming the Australian conference, Cheika does have to compensate for the absence of leader, lineout caller and blinddie flanker Dave Dennis for the remainder of the campaign.
The former Wallaby suffered a serious knee injury against the Brumbies and is scheduled for a reconstruction next week.
Former Wallabies and Brumbies loose forward Stephen Hoiles, a Super Rugby centurion, has predictably been named at blindside and will also call the lineouts while reserve loose forward Mitchell Chapman has been included on an extended bench for the first time this season.
Waratahs: Israel Folau, Alofa Alofa, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtkey Beale, Rob Horne, Bernard Foley, Nich Phipps, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper (captain), Stephen Hoiles, Kane Douglas, Jacques Potgieter, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson. Reserves: Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Paddy Ryan, Mitchell Chapman, Brendan McKibbib, Jono Lance, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Cam Crawford (two to be omitted).