The fitness of fullback Kurtley Beale, who is recovering from a strain in his left hamstring, will determine whether Australia fields an unchanged starting XV in Sunday night’s much anticipated Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in Auckland.
The Australian selectors have chosen to delay until the final moment a decision on Beale’s fitness as he continues his recovery, with the mercurial NSW Waratahs playmaker bracketed alongside the multi talented Adam Ashley-Cooper for the position, in the line-up announced today.
Ashley-Cooper is similarly bracketed at centre, alongside the Queensland Reds Anthony Fainga’a, who will slot into the midfield in a flow on effect should Beale ultimately be ruled out, and Ashley-Cooper line up at fullback.
The final piece of the selection jig-saw surrounding Beale concerns the bench, with NSW Waratahs centre Rob Horne set to reappear after recovering from a facial fracture should Anthony Fainga’a be required for starting duties.
The switch for Ashley-Cooper, if it eventuates, shouldn’t prove too disruptive as the 27-year-old has played from fullback on 19 previous occasions among his 62 Tests to date.
Beale has twice left the field with the same hamstring strain during Rugby World Cup.
After being Australia’s internal Player of the Day against Ireland, he retired 38 minutes into the following week’s Pool C match against the United States of America, taking the decision to withdraw after feeling a “general tightness” in the muscle.
Beale was subsequently rested from the final Pool match against Russia before returning in the gripping 11-9 quarter-final win over South Africa, where he excelled from the back before retiring six minutes before the end with a reoccurrence of the injury.
Scans last Monday in Auckland subsequently confirmed a small strain although the team’s medical staff have worked tirelessly since in an attempt to return the fullback to playing duties.
“We will leave it as long as we can before making a decision,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans says. “It will be tough on Kurtley if he has to miss this one, but we will take no chances. If he can’t play, he will contribute off the field as he always does. Adam and Ant are both good men. They will do a more than capable job in Kurtley’s absence.”
Although the loss of one of last year’s IRB nominees for Player of the Year who was also the recent John Eales Medal winner would be a blow, Deans says the resilience his men showed during the epic win over the reigning Rugby World Cup holders would stand the group in good stead for the massive challenge ahead.
“The players all know the role-play. They all have a good understanding of what is required,” he says. “It’s no different to when we had to relocate Radike from No 8 to the wing in Nelson! These are all challenges that tournament play brings, especially when it reaches the knock out stages, and when squad resources [playing numbers] are limited. We routinely plan for these eventualities, working out the options we will have available to us, and are fortunate to have the amount of versatility in the squad that we have.”
Although Ashley-Cooper returns to fullback for the first time in Tests this year, the 27-year-old is well versed in the role. The 19 Tests he has played in the position, all of which have come during the Deans tenure as Australian coach, already rate Ashley-Cooper as the sixth most capped Wallaby fullback of all time, just two appearances behind former custodian Arthur McGill.
Anthony Fainga’a made a telling contribution defensively in the final moments once he took the field from the bench during last weekend’s match, proving that he was well beyond the heavy head knock he sustained during the 67-5 win over the United States of America last month.
Fainga’a has been a regular in the Test backline for a good portion of this season, having made his debut against the All Blacks in Christchurch last year. He teamed in the midfield with inside centre Pat McCabe during the Wallabies wins over both South Africa (coming off the bench) and New Zealand (from a starting role) at the back end of the team’s Tri Nations triumph earlier this year.
McCabe, who has been troubled by an injured shoulder, has recovered quickly, playing a full part in training this week without any problems.
While the starting forward pack remains the same as that which tackled South Africa last week, with prop Sekope Kepu having recovered from a rolled ankle in time to play, the bench will see two changes if Beale doesn’t front.
In that instance, Horne will return, having overcome the fractured cheekbone he sustained in the win over the United States of America. Horne played 47 minutes against the Americans, scoring the game’s first try, despite having sustained a heavy knock in the first collision of the game which was later diagnosed as a facial fracture.
“It’s great to have Rob back. He’s a courageous young man and a real talent,” Deans says. “He was fully tested this week in contact during training and has come back fine.”
The confirmed change among the run on reserves is a straight swap, with the abrasive Queensland Reds second row Rob Simmons stepping in for Nathan Sharpe. Deans says that selection represents a ‘horses for courses’ approach, with the selectors feeling that the abrasive Simmons was best suited for the physical challenge presented by the All Black forwards.
While Australia’s last win against New Zealand at Eden Park was in 1986 – the year before Rugby World Cup began – and the All Blacks have not lost at the ground to anyone for 17 years through 26 matches, Deans doesn’t believe the history will play any part in Sunday’s contest.
“The circumstances this weekend are unique,” he says. “It’s a tough place to play, and those are impressive numbers for sure, but they don’t matter once Sunday night’s match kicks off. Rugby World Cup elimination matches are stand alone contests, distinct from any other that are played in the international game. The pressure is divided equally on both sides as there is no tomorrow, and the ultimate prize [a place in the Rugby World Cup final] awaits the side which earns that right of passage.”
The match will be refereed by Craig Joubert of South Africa.
15. Kurtley Beale (NSW Waratahs) or Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies)
14. James O’Connor (Western Force)
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies) or Anthony Fainga’a (Queensland Reds)
12. Pat McCabe (Brumbies)
11. Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds)
10. Quade Cooper (Queensland Reds)
9. Will Genia (Queensland Reds)
8. Radike Samo (Queensland Reds)
7. David Pocock (Western Force)
6. Rocky Elsom (Brumbies)
5. James Horwill Captain (Queensland Reds)
4. Dan Vickerman (NSW Waratahs)
3. Ben Alexander (Brumbies)
2. Stephen Moore (Brumbies)
1. Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs)
16. Tatafu Polota Nau (NSW Waratahs)
17. James Slipper (Queensland Reds)
18. Rob Simmons (Queensland Reds)
19. Ben McCalman (Western Force)
20. Luke Burgess (NSW Waratahs)
21. Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs)
22. Anthony Fainga’a (Queensland Reds) or Rob Horne (NSW Waratahs)