Final fight before the World Cup

Tri-Nations decider sees world's best clash for Southern Hemisphere honours in countdown to RWC 2011 kickoff.

    Elsom will concentrate on his role as flanker after being stood down as captain [GALLO/GETTY]

    The Tri-Nations decider between Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane pits the two top Rugby Union nations against each other two weeks before the World Cup kicks off.

    Fans on both sides of the Tasman sea remain desperate for clues as to their team's form ahead of the global tournament in New Zealand, and the clash at Lang Park on Saturday may well bring the gap between them into sharper focus.

    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 fly half 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 at Eden Park, Auckland – where October's World Cup final will be played.

    With Rocky Elsom removed as captain after the Wallabies' 14-9 win over the Springboks, James Horwill will take charge for the first time at Lang Park, where he hoisted the Super Rugby trophy as skipper of the Queensland Reds earlier this year.

    Captaincy tested

    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 back line has also come under scrutiny after media reports alleged O'Connor, fly half Quade Cooper and utility back Kurtley Beale were involved in a fight in Paris during the end of season tour last year.

    All denied any lingering disharmony 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 controversy 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 said 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 second row will lead a 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 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 said on Thursday.

    "He'll be into it and it might make him more dangerous, and that's not a good thing for us."

    The prospect of the Wallabies taking the trophy for the first time since 2001 would be viewed dimly in New Zealand, but Henry said the result would mean little in the World Cup context.

    "If you look at history of rugby World Cups and teams playing each other, we beat the French in 2007 by 40-odd points in the game before the quarter-final ... I can't remember the result of the quarter-final," Henry quipped, referring to the All Blacks' 20-18 elimination by the hosts in Paris.

    That shock exit for the perennial World Cup favourites has heaped more pressure on the All Blacks to end their 24-year wait for a second title on home soil this year but Henry said the expectations were more of a spur than a burden.

    "I think it's a real advantage for us to have that expectation," he said.

    "That's why the All Blacks are the most winning side of any international professional sporting team in 100 years. That's a fact.

    "And the reason for that is the expectation of the New Zealand public."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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