The Rugby Championship starts this Saturday Aug. 18, but the psychological jousting has begun—and it may have had an early casualty with playmaker Quade Cooper omitted.
Days out from kick-off, New Zealand All Blacks coach Steve Hansen began hurling thinly disguised barbs at his Australian Wallabies counter-part Robbie Deans.
The embattled Wallaby coach is refusing to be drawn into a verbal chess match—though he is pressured to by the media.
But the man at the heart of the All Black gamesmanship, Wallaby flyhalf Cooper, has been dropped.
Over recent days, Hansen has undermined Deans with faint praise and sugar-coated snipes.
The mind games reached a peak when the former All Black coach, Graham Henry, commented on last year’s world cup. He said, “… Quade Cooper was plainly the weakest link.”
Henry went on to say the All Blacks targeted the mercurial Cooper when they beat the Wallabies.
Henry said Deans made a tactical error trying to hide Cooper in defense by moving him to the three-quarter line.
“Dropping him back produced a weakness in Australia’s back three,” Henry said, “not only on aerial skills, but in a positional sense as well.”
Henry said Dean’s tactical error was “glaring.”
Cooper’s play was only one weakness, according to Henry. His outspoken jibes infuriated N.Z. fans, who roundly booed Cooper whenever he played. Under siege, Cooper’s form suffered.
Hansen immediately made it a double-act, saying that Cooper “didn’t help himself” during the world cup. He was talking about how Cooper taunted the N.Z. fans.
Many feel that the controversial but brilliant Cooper is crucial to Wallaby hopes. But the All Black tacticians have ensured that his poor world-cup performance—both on and off the field – is back in the sports media.
Whether their comments led to Cooper’s dropping will remain a secret, but the inference remains.
That aside, several Wallaby team-mates, including Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell “leaped to his defense”.
Their loyalty is admirable. But leading into this crucial opening Test, Deans would want his players focused … on the match, not the media. So the distraction has had a real impact.
Whatever the reason for Cooper’s dumping, it increases the pressure on his replacement, Berrick Barnes. And on Deans.
Still, Hansen knows that playing the media can backfire; firstly, the Wallabies could beat the All Blacks.
They enjoy playing in Sydney and are strongly supported there. The home crowd coupled with a noticeable self-belief might be enough to enable an upset result.
While quite possible, that’s not likely. Particularly as center Sonny Bill Williams has been recalled to the All Blacks, ahead of his departure to Japan, then Sydney rugby league.
Williams is in career-best form and will dominate the midfield, adding to the overall advantage the All Blacks will have.
Australia plays New Zealand in Sydney at 8 p.m. Saturday Aug 18 (H.K. Saturday, 6 p.m.).
Springboks vs Pumas
South Africa then plays Argentina in Cape Town at 5 pm Saturday Aug. 18 (H.K. Saturday, 11 p.m.).
This will be the first game for Argentina in the Rugby Championship, which is an extension of the Tri-Nations.
South Africa’s Springboks must win to remain competitive. They should. Though flyhalf Morne Steyne is out of form and towering loose forward Schalk Burger is injured.
Lock Andries Bekker returns after being out of international rugby for two years through injury.
New coach Heyneke Meyer is slowly creating “his” Springboks, but the success-starved fans are divided about whether his conservative approach will prevail.
Captain Jean de Villiers is more combative than creative at center, so calls for a more expansive Springboks may be in vain.
Many pundits are expecting Argentina’s Pumas to be strong. But only at home.
The Tri-Nations sides are ranked one, two and three in the world (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, respectively); Argentina is ranked eight.
Argentina has never beaten New Zealand or South Africa. Having said that, Argentina is good enough to beat any side that underestimates them.
The introduction of Argentinean culture into the Tri-Nations countries will add to the “color” of the Rugby Championship.
I imagine the dream would be that Argentina will prove to be a doorway into the Americas, including the USA and Canada.
Peter Lalanabaravi has over 30 years experience as a rugby writer.
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