Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Rugby World Cup: Pressure on Wallaby Beale to prove his fitness

David Pocock is unlikely to have the same freedom around the ruck under referee Craig Joubert as he did in the quarter-final. Photo / Getty Images
David Pocock is unlikely to have the same freedom around the ruck under referee Craig Joubert as he did in the quarter-final. Photo / Getty Images

Kurtley Beale, whose magical running from fullback could pose difficult questions for the All Blacks, finds out today if he will line up in the World Cup semifinal at Eden Park.

The omens are not good, but Beale has a last chance to prove a damaged hamstring plaguing his campaign is up to the do-or-die match against the No 1-ranked team on rugby's biggest stage. If Beale is ruled out at today's captain's run, centre Adam Ashley-Cooper shifts to fullback where he has played 19 tests, with Anthony Fainga'a joining the fray, and Rob Horne the bench.

The importance of Beale to Australia's attacking capabilities and prospects can't be overemphasised, although in the manner of all coaches, Robbie Deans expressed confidence in the cover. An indication of Beale's poor prospects is that Deans will not delay what is almost the inevitable until tomorrow.

"He will have to convince us he's 100 per cent," said Deans. "He ran this morning and did a significant amount but in his position, he needs to be repeat top-end.

He'll need to show there are no ill effects overnight and then convince himself first, and us second."

Placing the redoubtable Ashley-Cooper at fullback would completely alter the shape of the Wallabies' attack - the 98kg Ashley-Cooper is a major contrast to Beale, a jack-in-the-box runner who even skipped free in the claustrophobic quarter-final against South Africa.

The Australians could use wing James O'Connor as an attacking weapon from deep, to partly replicate what Beale offers. But the loss of the Waratahs whiz would be an enormous blow, not only for Australia but - as with Dan Carter's departure - the quality of the game.

Deans dropped a shock of sorts by leaving veteran lock Nathan Sharpe, who is on 99 tests, out of the 22, preferring the inexperienced Rob Simmons who the coach says would bring more athleticism to deal with what Australia say they expect will be lateral All Black ball movement. Hard tackling inside centre Pat McCabe has staved off a shoulder problem to make the starting lineup.

Deans was both engaging and engaged in a fairly relaxed showing at yesterday's press conference in Takapuna. He faced inevitable opportunities to talk about mixed emotions, making it clear he was totally "embedded" in Australian rugby even though he had sought counsel from friend, cricketer and fellow rural Cantabrian John Wright - who has coached against New Zealand - when heading to Australia.

Asked about vindication, the former All Black assistant who was snubbed for the top job said: "I never feel vindicated ... you constantly want more."

Reflecting on the quarter-final win, he said a repeat reliance on desperate defence would not beat the All Blacks. On Richie McCaw's foot injury, the old Crusaders mentor opined: "Richie will play out of his skin. He doesn't work his way back into form, he hits the ground running." The Wallabies' dismal performance when last at Eden Park "worries us, perhaps".

Continuing controversy around the alleged latitude given by quarter-final referee Bryce Lawrence to Wallaby openside David Pocock at the breakdown should not influence semifinal referee Craig Joubert, Deans claimed. The last World Cup referees standing were the best "although that possibility [of problems] is there but is nothing new."

Privately though, the Wallabies must wonder if the astounding anti-Lawrence tide has penetrated South African Joubert's thinking. At least the Wallabies are forewarned, and if penalties suddenly arrive against the brilliant flanker Pocock, Deans will surely have captain James Horwill primed to argue Pocock's case.

- NZ Herald

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