World Cup heavyweights in Tri-Nations title fight

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.”

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