Cullen downplays Australia's demise

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The Independent Online

New Zealand's Christian Cullen believes the supposed demise of the All Blacks' arch-rivals, Australia, has been greatly exaggerated.

The Wallabies' reputation as the best team in the world took a battering following their dismal tour to Europe where they lost back-to-back Tests to England and France. Such was Australia's poor showing, they slipped two places to third in the Zurich World Rankings, with the All Blacks claiming top spot.

But Cullen, who has won 13 of his 52 New Zealand caps against the Wallabies, feels the reigning World Cup winners are still the team to fear.

Cullen said: "I didn't watch any of the Wallabies' games during their recent tour but they didn't do too well and they're getting a bit of stick at the moment.

"After losing to England, France and almost losing to Wales a lot of people are saying that Australia are in a bad shape right now but I don't agree with that. At the end of the day it's only a tour and I don't think you can read too much into that. They are still the number one team to beat.

"It's the World Cup that counts and the Aussies are going to be a major force during that tournament," he said. "I think the next World Cup is going to be the closest we've ever had – it's going to be wide open. There are a number of teams capable of winning the tournament in 2003 and it's going to be a very difficult one to call."

The Super 12 champions ACT Brumbies could be set to switch the Wallaby Test fly-half Stephen Larkham to full-back. Press speculation in Australia has also indicated that the rugby league convert Mat Rogers, who has only 20 minutes of top flight union under his belt, is set to take Larkham's No 10 jersey in the Wallabies line-up.

It is thought that both the Brumbies and Australian Rugby Union are keen to protect Larkham, who missed much of last season through injury.

The Brumbies became the first Australian franchise to win the Super 12 with Joe Roff at full-back. But he has taken a year's sabbatical, joining Biarritz in France, and the Brumbies assistant coach Brian Smith admitted he would have no qualms moving Larkham to the last line of defence.

"Stephen Larkham is a brilliant player in any position," he said. "And the key is that it will be his decision where he plays."

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