Australia’s rugby players believe their winless run at Loftus Versfeld and not the negative outburst by injured teammate Quade Cooper is the most important obstacle to overcome in tomorrow’s Rugby Championship game in South Africa.
The challenges are piling up for coach Robbie Deans’ squad, who were already missing a string of senior players to injury and had been blasted for their erratic form before Cooper’s untimely criticism from the sidelines through messages on Twitter about the “toxic environment” in the camp. To convincingly answer the critics — and stave off further pressure for him to be replaced by Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie — Deans must lead Australia to a first win in their history over South Africa at the intimidating Pretoria stadium.
“Oh mate, it’s going to be tough,” young flanker Michael Hooper said on Tuesday. “South Africa at Loftus is going to be really good to play. We haven’t won there and that’s a challenge, and a chance to make history so, you know, we’re really excited.”
Australia have won just once in nearly 50 years on the South African highveld and faces a Springbok team also hurting after a poor start under new coach Heyneke Meyer. However, that historic Australian success was under Deans two seasons ago, when Kurtley Beale, who could be in line to replace Cooper at flyhalf this weekend, kicked a match-winning penalty in the dying seconds in Bloemfontein.
And although the Wallabies began this year’s southern hemisphere championship with home and away losses to the world champions and top-ranked All Blacks, they scrambled for come-from-behind victories over both South Africa and newcomer Argentina at home in their past two games.
The Springboks and Pumas also have lost to the All Blacks, leaving Australia second in the inaugural four-team championship.
Minus the troublesome Cooper, who is waiting to have knee surgery, Australia’s squad arrived in South Africa last week, giving players more than a week to acclimatize to the altitude and — maybe more importantly — prepare away from the criticism and distractions back home.
“I think obviously there’s other issues going on with the management and coaches or whatever, but the guys are just focused on what we want to do,” loose forward Dave Dennis said in Johannesburg.
Despite the public challenges from Cooper and other commentators outside the group over the style of rugby played under Deans, the late rallies to beat the Springboks and Argentina’s Pumas might also have galvanized the squad for the remainder of the tournament.
“We were under the pump a fair bit after two losses there against the All Blacks,” utility back Berrick Barnes said. “You know that [wins over South Africa and Argentina] relieved a bit of pressure, but also created a bit of confidence in the side that you know we can hold on in those tight ones.”
Beale, normally a fullback, and Barnes will vie for the problematic No. 10 jersey on Saturday, while Cooper’s immediate future with the national team will come under further scrutiny after his statements that he does not want to be involved in the current setup. The talented, but inconsistent New Zealand-born flyhalf had already been linked with a move to rugby league to join up with good friend and former New Zealand international Sonny Bill Williams, despite assurances that he would stay with Queensland.