MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – Australia and New Zealand head into tomorrow’s Tri-Nations decider insisting their focus is on the silverware but both sides will be keenly aware that far more than southern hemisphere bragging rights are on the line.
The Brisbane showdown pits the two top rugby nations against each other in their last test hit-out two weeks before the World Cup kicks off in New Zealand.
Fans on both sides of the Tasman sea remain desperate for clues as to their team’s form ahead of the global showpiece tournament and the clash at cauldron-like Lang Park may well bring the gap between them into sharper focus.
Befitting a dress-rehearsal for the World Cup final at Eden Park, both the All Blacks and Wallabies have named their strongest available sides, throwing injury caution to the wind.
Coach Graham Henry has recalled captain Richie McCaw and talismanic flyhalf Dan Carter among 11 first-choice players rested for the All Blacks’ South African tour, where a second-string side fumbled its way to an 18-5 loss against the reigning world champions last week.
The Wallabies have far less depth to chop and change but have added backbone to a side that was trounced 30-14 by the All Blacks in their Tri-Nations opener in Eden Park.
With Rocky Elsom dumped as captain after the Wallabies’ 14-9 win over the Springboks, James Horwill will take charge over for the first time at Lang Park, where he hoisted the Super rugby trophy as skipper of the Queensland Reds earlier this year.
Horwill’s captaincy has already been tested in its first week, with one of his young charges, winger James O’Connor, banned for the All Blacks test for failing to turn up to a team photo-shoot and function for the naming of the World Cup squad.
The young Wallabies backline has also come under scrutiny after media reports alleged O’Connor, flyhalf Quade Cooper and utility back Kurtley Beale were involved in a punch-up in Paris during the end of season tour last year. All denied any lingering disharmony when grilled by reporters this week.
Seeking any spur to beat a team they have lost 11 out of their past 12 games to, the Wallabies have attempted to turn the kerfuffle into a tool to galvanise the team.
“When one of our mates are picked on from the public, you always give them the support that they need — you bring them in and you get closer,” prop Sekope Kepu told reporters on Wednesday.
“That’s the feeling in the camp this week — everyone is helping each other out.”
Horwill might prefer his players focus on the more recent past and draw inspiration from the Reds’ Super rugby title, when a raft of Wallabies enjoyed the closest thing to a victory over the All Blacks in beating the Richie McCaw-led Crusaders.
The towering 26-year-old lock will lead a decidedly Red-tinged side with Fiji-born number eight Radike Samo starting his first test in seven years and outside centre Anthony Fainga’a named behind Queensland halves pair Quade Cooper and Will Genia.
Horwill’s appointment has also freed up flanker Elsom to concentrate on his game, having struggled to reach his rampaging best as captain since returning from Europe in 2009.
“He will be pretty pumped up as well and knows that he will have to put a performance in — that the captaincy won’t keep him selected just outright,” All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson told reporters yesterday.
“He’ll be into it and it might make him more dangerous, and that’s not a good thing for us.”