Australia lift off against Argentina muscle men

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The Independent Online

The time for cuddling koalas and swimming with sharks is over. Australia open their defence of the World Cup at the Telstra Stadium tonight with arguably their strongest ensemble. The Wallabies are taking no chances, which is a big tribute to the muscle of Argentina.

George Gregan, playing in his third World Cup, captains Australia on his 90th Test appearance in a match that has the potential to be an awkward curtain-raiser for the hosts. Argentina have shown impressive recent form, advancing to seventh in the world rankings with victories over South Africa and France but they face a daunting prospect here.

"It will be like a big party for the Australians,'' Felipe Contepomi, Argentina's stand-off, said. "They will have 83,000 supporters and we'll have about 100.''

Forget the differences between the rival sports Down Under. Everybody, including those attached to rugby league and Aussie Rules, will be rooting for the Wallabies.

In the head-to-head between the countries, Australia have won 11, the Pumas 4. At the very least Argentina, who regard immense scrummaging as a matter of national pride, will help to reveal whether Australia's relatively inexperienced pack have the wherewithal to compete with the best. The lock, David Giffin, is the only survivor from the forwards who provided the platform for a successful World Cup campaign in 1999.

As for the new prop, Al Baxter, he was so convinced he had no part to play, he put his name into the ballot for tournament tickets. He was granted two for Australia v Argentina and instead will be playing in the match.

Despite the fact that Australia have won only one of their last five Tests, Joe Roff, their world-class wing, has been impressed with the side's approach.

"This squad is the best prepared of any I have been involved with,'' said Roff, who is, like Gregan, playing in his third World Cup. "The planning has been very smooth and the organisation fantastic. We can't fault the way the coaching staff or the management for putting in place an environment where we're able to perform at our best. The quality of the players we have is as good as anything I've been involved with in the past.''

Roff, who made his debut against Canada in the 1995 World Cup, has 27 tries from 76 appearances. Although chosen on the wing, he expects to provide cover for the full-back Mat Rogers, but it is a sign, even at this late stage, that Australia are not sure of their best combination. With Stirling Mortlock suffering from a virus, Rogers, who has played the last four Tests at outside centre, moves to his preferred position.

Rogers has played in the rugby league World Cup but does not see many similarities between the two competitions. "To win the league World Cup you had to play one good game, and that was against New Zealand,'' Rogers said. "There are half a dozen sides who can win this World Cup. This is the biggest moment of my sporting career and the nerves are starting to jump around.''

Whereas the Wallabies include a specialist goal-kicker in Matt Burke, who has amassed 851 points, 60 short of Michael Lynagh's record, and have another kicker in Elton Flatley, Argentina have omitted Gonzalo Quesada. The coach, Marcelo Loffreda, prefers Felipe Contepomi at stand-off. "I know I'm not the best kicker in the world or even near that,'' said Contepomi, whose twin brother, Manuel, plays at centre. Quesada was the leading points-scorer four years ago with 102 as the Pumas knocked out Ireland and ran France close in the quarter-finals.

The loss of the centre Lisandro Arbizu with a knee injury allows the captaincy to pass to Agustin Pichot, late of Bristol, now with Stade Français. In the 1999 tournament Argentina pulled the short straw, and were up against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Again, their best chance of qualifying for the last eight probably rests in defeating Ireland rather than the world champions.