Thu, Nov 08, 2012 - Page 19 News List

Southern greats ready for Europe

Reuters, SYDNEY

New Zealand’s All Blacks perform a haka before their Bledisloe Cup Test match against Australia’s Wallabies in Brisbane, Australia, on Oct. 20.

Photo: Reuters

New Zealand, Australia and South Africa bestride the world rankings and will be confident of showing once again over the next month that the North-South divide in world rugby is very much alive and kicking.

However, the long southern hemisphere season has taken its toll in injury and several big names will be absent from the sides that look to storm the citadels of European rugby over four weekends from Saturday.

The exception are the All Blacks, who showed no signs of a World Cup hangover while running rampant through the inaugural Rugby Championship and only faltered in a 18-18 draw with the Wallabies in their last outing.

Coach Steve Hansen’s stated goal is to improve each week and while it is obvious the world champions are far from a finished product, there have been enough glimpses of a “perfect performance” in the making to set alarm bells ringing in Europe.

Hansen’s desire to avoid having a side dominated by players in their mid-30s by the next World Cup in 2015 was also evident in the nine new caps he brought in this year, two of which are likely to be introduced on the tour.

Uncapped hooker Dane Coles has been given his chance to prove his credentials as Hansen contemplates the transition from the era of Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore.

Scrumhalf Piri Weepu will also be under pressure after being surpassed by the electric Aaron Smith earlier this year with Tawera Kerr-Barlow the other uncapped player in the squad for Tests against Scotland, Italy, Wales and England.

Flyhalf Beauden Barrett could also use the tour to challenge Aaron Cruden as the long-term replacement for 30-year-old Daniel Carter.

While Cruden grabbed the understudy role on the back of a superb Super Rugby season for the title-winning Waikato Chiefs, Hansen will be looking closely for signs of hesitancy under pressure and whether he can temper his instinct to run as a first option.

Barrett appears to have a tactical game more like Carter’s and Hansen’s decision on his back-up at the Millennium Stadium and Twickenham could be strong indicators for the future.

In an ideal world, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans would be using this month’s Tests to cast an eye over the players likely to provide the opposition for next year’s British and Irish Lions tour, and perhaps blood a few youngsters.

This season has been anything but ideal for Deans and a lengthy injury list — or “carnage” as the New Zealander described it — means his squad will continue to participate in what has largely been a damage-limitation exercise.

Defeat to Scotland in a Newcastle gale and two close calls against Argentina in the Rugby Championship showed Australia’s vulnerability, but a three-Test whitewash of Wales in June amply illustrated a strength of character that runs through the side.

In the absence of Quade Cooper and James O’Connor, and with Berrick Barnes having moved to fullback, Kurtley Beale is likely to be handed the task of firing an inexperienced backline from flyhalf against France, England, Italy and Wales.

Lock James Horwill and brilliant scrumhalf Will Genia, two recent captains, will also miss the trip, leaving combative second rower Nathan Sharpe to skipper the team in his swansong after twice postponing his retirement.

Openside flanker David Pocock, another recent captain, will tour, but is doubtful for the opening match in Paris and so European fans will get a first proper look at his impressive understudy Michael Hooper.

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