When Australia open the Tri-Nations series against South Africa in Cape Town next Saturday it will be a considerable test of their team spirit. For the first time in a long time the world champions are under pressure, on and off the field.
The comprehensive defeat by England in Melbourne posed problems enough for the coach, Eddie Jones, and his captain, George Gregan, but there have been further distractions which threaten to undermine their World Cup defence in four months' time.
John O'Neill, the head of the Australian Rugby Union, became involved in the row when Gregan went AWOL on the eve of the England Test. Gregan spent the night with his wife at a Melbourne hotel, apparently without telling officials. Jones did not have a problem with it, but O'Neill described Gregan's action as an error of judgement. Under the previous coach, Rod Macqueen, the Wallabies always bonded on the eve of a Test with an informal dinner.
But the differences between O'Neill and Gregan, the scrum-half who has the difficult task of emulating John Eales, go deeper. The squad are involved in a conflict with the ARU over World Cup payments, and Gregan is the players' representative. The Wallabies are refusing the World Cup agreement, describing it as "unfair and archaic'', and are seeking court action preventing the union from forcing them to do so. The International Board have decreed that players who have not signed by the end of this month will not be allowed to play in the World Cup.
Disagreement over commercial rights for the use of players' images has also resulted in the England squad refusing to sign. Although the IRB have made changes to the document, these too have been rejected. "Having taken legal advice, the English players are not able to sign the agreement in its current form,'' Damian Hopley of the Rugby Players' Association said. "Until the IRB enter into dialogue with the players the issue will remain unresolved.'' Hopley complains that the governing body have "unfettered rights'' to "commercially exploit'' players' images, and that terms of the agreement can be altered after they have been signed.
Despite South Africa's anaemic performances against Scotland and a last-gasp 26-25 victory over Argentina, Australia face an uncomfortable time in Cape Town. Any win against the Pumas has to be treated with respect. They are the most improved country in Test rugby and are pushing for inclusion in the Tri-Nations.
For all their apparent weakness in defence, the Springboks have a resilience which has enabled them to win three in a row. They trailed Argen-tina, who arrived in Port Elizabeth following a 2-0 series win over France, by nine points with two minutes left.
They pulled off a similar great escape in the finale to last season's Tri-Nations, Werner Greeff scoring and converting a try in injury time for a 33-31 win over Australia at Ellis Park. It was a result that enabled New Zealand to clinch the series after the Wallabies had prevailed in 2000 and 2001. Australia play New Zealand in Sydney on 26 July, with the return leg in Auckland on 16 August.
Jeremy Paul, the veteran hooker, and Nathan Grey, a utility back, have been dropped by Australia. Full-back Matthew Burke and stand-off Stephen Larkham, who missed the defeat by England, are back after injury. Elton Flatley, dropped for oversleeping in the build-up to the game, is recalled.
It was Burke's last-minute penalty against the All Blacks in Sydney last season that gave the Wallabies a 16-14 victory, a result that prompted the New Zealand coach, John Mitchell, to drop Christian Cullen. Cullen, New Zealand's top try-scorer with 46 and the most capped full-back with 58 appearances, has responded by joining Munster.
The All Blacks believe they can live without Cullen, but does the same argument apply to Jonah Lomu? Joe Rokocoko's hat-trick of tries in last week's otherwise unconvincing 31-23 victory over France in Christchurch went some way towards answering that question.
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