Wallabies wary as All Blacks go for two playmakers
NOTHING is said by chance in the build-up to a Bledisloe Cup encounter, not by the Wallabies, not by the All Blacks.
So the fact that Australian captain Michael Hooper on his arrival in Perth on Sunday returned again and again to the possibility of New Zealand persisting with their dual playmaker role indicates the Wallabies may be bracing for a different "beast" at Optus Stadium on Saturday.
Eddie Jones, when Wallabies coach, refused to identify New Zealand by their universally-known nickname, the All Blacks, because he felt it fed their self-importance.
Similarly, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen revealed in a talk to a NZ rugby club, how he deliberately did not use the name of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika because he knew it would upset and distract him.
So the media utterances from the two camps are studied carefully, as much for what they don't say as for what they do.
In this case, however, Hooper employed no evasive techniques at all but seized on the fact that the All Blacks have essentially copied the dual playmaker system that the Wallabies have used almost from the time Michael Lynagh played at inside centre outside five-eighth Mark Ella on the 1984 Grand Slam tour.
Since then it has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the time Bernard Foley played at 12 outside Quade Cooper, to Foley moving to 10 and Kurtley Beale to inside centre, to the more recent arrangement of Beale being at fullback while Christian Lealiifano operated as chief playmaker.
The All Blacks ventured down this track for their most recent Test against the Springboks in Wellington two weekends ago, when Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga both were in the starting side, Barrett at fullback, Mo'unga at five-eighth, both going the full distance.
From all the reverence with which Hooper spoke of the experiment, it sounded like the All Blacks responded to their dual conductors with a dazzling display of running rugby.
In reality, they lurched their way to an unconvincing 16-all draw, the second year in a row they have failed to beat the side that they will play in the opening match of their Rugby World Cup campaign in Japan.
"They pose some different threats," Hooper said.
"That dual playmaking role that they tried last week and they have had a few different variations across their team with who they have selected.
"I think they have a very good set piece. They've adjusted some roles, like I said, with their playmakers who have looked very sharp. They are getting a lot of ball in Barrett's hands."
Asked whether New Zealand would persist with the experiment or revert to the standard All Black method of allowing one man - be it a Grant Fox, Dan Carter or Beauden Barrett - to control all the shots, he replied: "I don't know what they're going to do. We'll wait and see Thursday."
Given the fact that the Wallabies managed a 16-10 win themselves over the Pumas with Lealiifano at five-eighth and Beale at fullback - with both men contributing decisively to the victory - the expectation is that Cheika and his fellow selectors will want to submit the combination to an even sterner test this week.
Certainly the Wallabies are showing more attacking intent, which can be both good news and bad against the All Blacks.
Good, because the All Blacks cannot be beaten by a side playing negatively; bad, because no side in world rugby exploits turnover ball like the All Blacks and there is no question that forcing offloads could play right into New Zealand's hands.
Curiously, the Wallabies' attacking mindset has coincided with a more conservative approach by Hooper in ordering penalty shots at goal rather than his usually standard ploy of kicking for the corner.
Three times against Argentina he decided not to waste near-certain points, asking Lealiifano to kick for the posts.
In a match that finished with Australia and Argentina scoring one try apiece, it was those three penalty goals that ultimately provided the Wallabies with their winning buffer.
All indications are that openside flanker David Pocock will not be able to return this weekend from his season-long calf injury, which means that unless he is able to play in the rematch at Eden Park on August 17, he will have to be selected for the World Cup virtually sight-unseen this season. Still, as one team official put it on Sunday: "It is David Pocock."
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