All Black coach Steve Hansen has fired the first psychological shot ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Hansen was "dumbfounded" by Ewen McKenzie's selection of Kurtley Beale at first five ahead of Bernard Foley for tomorrow night's Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney, suggesting the Wallabies coach might have been told to select him because of apparent interest from league clubs.
The comments by the All Black coach came yesterday ahead of the test at ANZ Stadium where Australian confidence will be high following the Waratahs' recent Super Rugby triumph at the same venue.
Foley, named on the reserves bench, kicked the late penalty against the Crusaders that clinched the title for his team, and Hansen couldn't resist having a dig at the decision to put Beale, who played the season at No12, into the playmaker's role. He also couldn't resist raising a question about Beale's goalkicking, and the fact that he believes the Wallabies are putting immense pressure on themselves to win back the Bledisloe Cup, a trophy Australia last held in 2002.
"I was dumbfounded by it a wee bit initially, the selection," Hansen said. "I thought, 'Why would he do that?' I came to the conclusion that maybe Ewen doesn't trust him [Foley] to be able to do what he wants against us. Or if you really think about it, the other guy [Beale] is under contract and league are chasing him so you might start to think maybe the ARU has told him he's got to pick him.
"At the end of the day it doesn't matter why he has. Both of them are very good rugby players and Kurtley is certainly a guy who loves to do things differently. He will throw a lot of inside balls to runners so we're going to have to make sure we look after that part of the park, particularly from second- and third-phase play when guys are struggling to get into position. He'll be dangerous.
"He's not as good a goalkicker as Foley but I guess he'll bring Foley on late in the game and if they need a goalkicker."
Asked if he would select a player if the New Zealand Rugby Union told him to, Hansen replied: "No."
Pressed on his "assertion" regarding McKenzie following orders, Hansen said it was an "assumption".
"One guy has played there all year, the other guy has played seven tests at most in his whole career at first-five, so why would you change that? It was just a thought that came through my head and I'm sure it came through a few other people's."
Asked if the All Blacks would try to rattle Beale, he said: "If we're going to win the game we're going to have to rattle a few of them better than they rattle us."
Warming to his task, Hansen added: "There's been a lot of talk [that] because they have won the Super Rugby they will win the Bledisloe Cup but that's rubbish. There's [no] correlation at all."
Hansen found it amusing that Australia were putting pressure on themselves by talking about this being "their year", in the wake of the Waratahs' triumph.
"I find that interesting. It's no different to any other year. There's two teams... one of them will win it and one of them will lose it."
Hansen said the decision to select Ben Smith at fullback ahead of Israel Dagg, a minor surprise of his own, was down to Smith's form, particularly on the counterattack. He said lock Patrick Tuipulotu was unavailable with a high ankle sprain and prop Charlie Faumuina had strep throat.