McCaw ready to turn screw on Cooper
Australia had to settle for the workmanlike in their final training session before this morning's semi-final against New Zealand. Kurtley Beale, anything but plain at fullback, pulled up, tight of hamstring, and was replaced at 15 by Adam Ashley-Cooper, with Anthony Fainga'a coming into the centre.
In truth, the Wallabies have been preparing all week with the new formation, planning to be less elusive, less spontaneous. They will, on the other hand, be more solid defensively. New Zealanders have been highlighting all week the lack of shoulder going into tackles made by Beale and Quade Cooper.
The reduction of mercurial threat from fullback places more pressure on Cooper. If he has been high and outstretched of arm going into the tackle he has been pretty woolly of thought in attack, and was reduced to a state of near panic in the closing quarter against South Africa.
There are two ways of looking at this apparent loss of form by the Wallabies' playmaker. The view on the Kiwi side of the Tasman Sea is the pressure of playing in the country of his upbringing and of daring to let a little spat with Richie McCaw in Hong Kong last year develop into a running feud has got to him. He's out of form and Richie's after him.
Or there's the view from the other side: Quade is due a big one. Anyone who has ever played with him at school or with the Reds will tell you that, sure, he can have an off day, but he never has two in succession.
And if you want to talk about an outhalf feeling the heat, what about little Aaron Cruden opposite Cooper. He's cheeky, no question, but this is a World Cup semi-final and mischief will get you about as far as you can budge David Pocock in an arm-wrestle.
What is more, the Australian openside will not only wrap up Cruden in a spinach-fuelled embrace, but will also beat old peg-leg Richie to the breakdown. The All Black captain hasn't even been able to keep his giant engine ticking over, because the loose screw in the fifth metatarsal has prevented him from training, and without his usual aerobic overdrive, McCaw ain't McCaw.
It's all good knockabout stuff, banter before the second semi-final. Only one thing is certain and that is that this will be unlike any Tri-Nations encounter. The World Cup generates a rhythm all of its own, a frenzied beating of firefighting equipment, hidden beneath the calm exterior of the coaches, Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.
The Australians reckon they alone have the mindset to deal with New Zealanders, based on regular contact and a lack of shiver. But do they have the scrum to deal with Tony Woodcock? You can have all the healthy disrespect in the world, but if you don't have a tighthead you end up in the same mess that Ireland made of the Australian scrum.
There is nevertheless a certain restlessness on the New Zealand side, a feeling a few of their own have not produced a big game yet. Brad Thorn, at the age of 36, spoke at the beginning of the tournament of leaving without regret. He has thumped his way around the rucks and scored a try, but he has not been a visible rock, the enforcer who adds menace to the All Black flamboyance.
Jerome Kaino has provided a mixture of destruction and stability, but the blindside wing forward may find himself unable to do much more than engage fully in his head-to-head in the back row. There's not just Pocock to worry about, but Rocky Elsom. And Radike Samo at No 8. And if Richie's got his foot, then Kieran Read, the Kiwi No 8, has an iffy ankle, and the Aussies can shift.
And even if the bruised and aching back row regain their customary poise, will the All Backs then be able to release their three-quarters in a game of all-consuming tackles? Cooper may not make much of an impression there, but the Wallabies pour forward to reinforce his point of weakness.
Forget scrambling defence; this is strangling defence.
The All Blacks have to break free of the throttling grip of Pocock; they need the breakdown to be refereed -- not ignored, as those in the quarter-finals were -- by Craig Joubert. From scrum to breakdown, tie up Pocock and then go wide.
Australia need the scrum and Cooper to be strong of shoulder. If I had to choose, I would say Richie's screw is not as loose as a nation fears and that he will collar Quade, and the All Blacks will be going to the final.
Sunday Indo Sport