Seasoned Wallabies Adam Ashley-Cooper and Wycliff Palu will return to the injury-depleted Australian side for this weekend’s Test against New Zealand in a boost to under-fire coach Robbie Deans.
The Brisbane clash is a dead rubber in the annual Bledisloe Cup tussle between the rivals, with the All Blacks winning the opening two games, but Saturday’s match is seen as an important test for Deans and his troubled side.
Australia finished second in the recent four-nations Rugby Championship tournament, ahead of Argentina and South Africa, but lagging behind world champions New Zealand after a humiliating 22-0 defeat in their second meeting.
Deans has presided over just three victories from 17 games against the ascendant All Blacks in the past four years and scrutiny has mounted during an inconsistent campaign this year marred by injuries to several key players.
Accusations of a “toxic” and dysfunctional environment within the camp from controversial playmaker Quade Cooper have been a further distraction.
Deans welcomed the return to the starting XV of Ashley-Cooper, sidelined with concussion after last month’s 31-8 trouncing by the Springboks, and Palu, who missed the Rugby Championship due to a Super 15 shoulder injury.
“They’re both proven Test performers so it is good to have them back,” the Wallabies coach said.
Deans was especially pleased to see the versatile Ashley-Cooper back in action, describing his skill and 72-cap experience as an invaluable asset for the relatively young side.
Ashley-Cooper has scored six tries against the Kiwis — only two other Australian players in history have a better record — and Deans will be hoping he is in top form with New Zealand on an uninterrupted 16-game winning streak.
“The All Blacks are the benchmark and proved it again through the Rugby Championship. They are a step up from where we’ve been,” Deans said. “But the guys have shown a lot of resilience over the last two months, and they’re excited about the opportunity ahead of them on the weekend.”
Waratahs winger Drew Mitchell is another welcome return from injury for Deans, starting on the bench in place of Digby Ioane, who hurt his knee in the Wallabies’ last outing, when they beat Argentina 25-19 in Rosario, Argentina.
Fiji-born second-rower Radike Samo is being rested ahead of Australia’s spring tour of Europe next month, with Palu taking his place.
Mike Harris retains goal-kicking duties at fullback after impressing in Argentina, with veteran lock Nathan Sharpe to skipper the side for what will be his 112th Test cap for Australia.
COACH’s FATHER DIES
New Zealand may be without coach Steve Hansen for their final Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia at the weekend after his father died yesterday.
Hansen’s father, Des, had been ill for some time and the coach had not been part of the team’s preparations this week for the test at Lang Park in Brisbane, Australia, on Saturday, which is a dead rubber after the All Blacks retained the trophy in August.
“The All Blacks family extend our deepest sympathies to Steve and his family at this very difficult time,” All Blacks manager Darren Shand told reporters in Christchurch yesterday. “Steve and the family thank everyone for their messages and support and ask for privacy at this very challenging time.”
All Blacks players and management have already said this week that Hansen’s absence from the team had not affected their build-up, something Shand reiterated.
“We have been dealing with this on a day-by-day basis ... and the All Blacks have continued their preparations for the test match against Australia as Des Hansen would want them to do,” Shand said.
The All Blacks team will be named tomorrow with the squad leaving for Australia later that day.
The world champions, who have held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003, will be seeking their 17th successive victory, which will tie the record for the most wins by a top tier rugby nation.
The overall world record of 18 successive wins is held by Lithuania.
Hooker Keven Mealamu is expected to earn his 100th Test cap in the match, the third New Zealand player to do so after Mils Muliaina and captain Richie McCaw.