Rugby: Mortlock the heartbreak king

By Steve Deane

There are big game players, and then there are BIG GAME PLAYERS. Stirling Mortlock, the Brumbies and Wallabies centre who will tonight make his comeback from shoulder surgery against the Chiefs, is well and truly in the latter category.

The strapping centre, who specialises in slashing line breaks and Kiwi heartbreaks - such as his 2003 World Cup semifinal intercept try - is so composed on the big stage it's easy to imagine that he sprinkles pressure on his cornflakes.

The bigger the occasion, the better Mortlock plays. The worry for the Chiefs is that tonight is a huge match, both for Mortlock and his team.

On a personal level, Mortlock will notch his 100th Super Rugby appearance. As far as his team is concerned, it is a must-win. Lose tonight and their season is as good as over.

Mortlock is pumped - so pumped he almost lost his voice from shouting so much in training this week. His teammates have been feeding off that energy. The Chiefs have won just once in Canberra, in 1999. Mortlock's return hasn't done much for their prospects of notching win number two.

"Training has been upbeat, my lack of voice is an indicator of that," Mortlock said. "I have been yelling a bit too much but everyone has been really up, our communication has been really high and positive, so the indicators have been really good.

"What's in front of us now is making sure that we turn up [tonight]."

Mortlock hasn't played since the Wallabies exited the World Cup at the quarter-final stage but he is confident his reconstructed shoulder will be up to the rigours of Super Rugby. He isn't so confident, however, about his match fitness.

"I definitely feel physically that I am ready to go. I just know that with match fitness, with the new ELVs in particular, I will be struggling a little bit. But that is the way it is.

"I am going into the game expecting the Chiefs to test me out and I am happy for them to do that. I am very confident the shoulder is right. I am just looking forward to playing."

The combative Mortlock has had his share of troubles with injury. In 2001 and 2004 he played every game as the Brumbies marched to the Super Rugby title - every match, that is, bar the final. On both occasions semifinal injuries ruled him out of the big occasion.

Last year he managed just six Super Rugby games and he'll do well tomatch that this year after having tosit out the first seven rounds.

Chiefs captain Mils Muliaina said his team would aim to expose Mortlock's lack of conditioning but the most effective way of containing him would be to deny him the ball.

"Hopefully we can try to exploit him but if we can stop their momentum through our tight five and stop him getting the ball, hopefully we can start some exciting things [ourselves]," Muliaina said. "We've got to stop their set-piece and stop their momentum because the likes of Mortlock can obviously turn a game around.

"I have no doubts he'll be right and with [it being] his hundredth game, I'm sure it will add a lot of excitement for him."

Muliaina said he wouldn't have too much extra advice for the Chiefs' young midfield pairing of Richard Kahui and Callum Bruce. "Richard and Callum are starting to create a nice combination together and I don't want them to start worrying about an individual player.

"I think they know the quality of player Mortlock is. There is no use me trying to add to that. I think they'll be very excited to get out there and play against a world-class player. If they keep doing the things they are doing well, setting up the outsides and defending really well, then they should go into the game pretty positively."

Mortlock will become the sixth Brumby to reach the 100-cap milestone, joining George Gregan (136), Stephen Larkham (116), Jeremy Paul (112), Bill Young (100) and George Smith (100).

It is a remarkable record for one franchise, a fact not lost on Mortlock, who recently signed a contract extension that will keep him at the Brumbies until 2010.

"Every single member [of that group] has played all their matches for the club. I think it reflects on how much all the guys love playing for this organisation. The guys that I am joining, it is pretty good company so I am very honoured.

"It has taken a few years to come around but hopefully my focus will now be on playing week-in and week-out."

- NZ Herald

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