There are so many either-ors about tomorrow's trans-Tasman semi-final between the hosts and their least favourite World Cup opponents – the All Blacks may have been beaten twice by France in these tournaments, but they fear their nearest and dearest more – that the sight of Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper bracketed at full-back on the Wallaby teamsheet seemed entirely of a piece.
Beale has been struggling with hamstring trouble for six days now and the Australians will certainly mourn his absence if he fails to make the cut. Ashley-Cooper is no mug, however. Wherever the multi-tasking Sydneysider plays, he will pose a threat.
That is always assuming the Wallaby forwards produce some front-foot ball. The stellar flanker David Pocock had the "nut" all to himself at the tackle area in the quarter-final victory over South Africa in Wellington, but he was winning the thing in full retreat. "Our overall performance was inadequate," acknowledged Robbie Deans, the New Zealand-born Wallaby coach whose rivalry with Graham Henry has generated so much discussion over the last few days. "We showed resolute defence and little else against the Boks. We'll have to bring more to the table this time because if we don't the All Blacks will bring a lot the other way."
Deans might easily have been standing in his opposite number's shoes here, for he was popularly expected to be appointed to the New Zealand job after the All Blacks' quarter-final exit in 2007. But Henry, widely expected to go gently into his sporting good night after that calamity, made a late application to continue in the head coaching role, made a presentation of the mea culpa variety before what amounted to a full New Zealand Rugby Football Union board, as opposed to the element with first-hand experience of international rugby, and won the vote. The Wallabies, already interested in Deans' services, could scarcely believe their luck and wasted no time in tying him into a deal.
This, then, is a contest richly spiced. The All Blacks start as favourites – hell, they have not lost a game of rugby in this city since 1994 – but the absence of the world's best outside-half Daniel Carter, who has now undergone surgery to repair the groin tear that ended his tournament a fortnight or so ago, and the continuing fitness issues surrounding the captain Richie McCaw mean they are more vulnerable than anyone imagined they might be at the start of the competition. The Wallabies? As ever, they are intensely focused.
Deans, no one's idea of a sentimentalist, made that abundantly clear yesterday when he omitted Nathan Sharpe from his match-day squad, just when the whole of Australia expected the long-serving lock to be picked for a 100th appearance in the green and gold. "We make the decisions that will be best for us in each instance," said the coach. "The 100? Those sorts of things don't come into it." A tough nut, Deans. But then, Henry is no pushover either. Enjoy.Reuse content