Beleaguered McKenzie calls in Leali’ifano
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — After a week of turmoil involving a star player and speculation over his own future, Australia coach Ewen McKenzie has recalled Christian Leali’ifano to fill a void the Wallabies’ midfield created by injuries and Kurtley Beale’s suspension for the Bledisloe Cup test against New Zealand on Saturday.
Matt Toomua is injured and Beale, who likely would have been named to replace him, is unavailable while the Australian Rugby Union investigates his clash with a team official and allegations he sent lewd text messages.
In their absence, McKenzie has opted for calming influence in the centers and added some experience to the bench with the return of Quade Cooper.
Scandal has surrounded the squad since it emerged Beale had a heated in-flight argument with the team’s business manager en route to Argentina from South Africa for the last weekend of the Rugby Championship, and the female staffer subsequently quit. An investigation into that incident uncovered allegations that Beale had sent around sexist text messages in June, and inadvertently coded in the business manager.
There have also been doubts cast over McKenzie’s management in the midst of an away losing streak and a heavy injury toll, rumors about disharmony within the squad, and speculation that his brief tenure would end before the Wallabies’ upcoming tour of Europe.
Australia’s patchy form has seen it slip from No. 2 to No. 4 in the international rankings. After opening the Rugby Championship with a home draw against the All Blacks, Australia was thrashed 51-20 in New Zealand to surrender the Bledisloe Cup series. They had narrow wins at home against the Springboks and Pumas, but lost the matches in South Africa and Argentina.
“We can definitely improve on Eden Park. With the turnover situation, we gifted them a bunch of tries there. We had a couple of tries under the yellow card, so we can definitely do better than that — no question,” McKenzie said. “We were capable of winning the first test, which was only seven days prior.”
The former test prop and veteran coach said he had a resilient squad that could block out the off-field issues.
“If we can get it right this weekend, we have an undefeated domestic season — I look at the game and say there’s an opportunity to square the series, too,” he said. “Maybe the trophy is not there, but when there are things on offer, it’s a question of who stands up.”
The world champion All Blacks won the Rugby Championship with a game to spare before a last-minute loss in South Africa ended their 22-test unbeaten streak.
Leali’ifano, a regular starter before an ankle injury last year, will be making his first test appearances in 2014.
He was one of two changes from the starting lineup that lost 21-17 in Mendoza — giving Argentina its first-ever win in the Rugby Championship — with Rob Simmons returning from injury to start at lock in place of James Horwill.
Vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper was selected to play his 100th test — becoming the sixth Australian to reach that milestone — and will start on the wing, while Cooper adds experience to the bench after being included in the test squad for the first time since recovering from left shoulder surgery earlier this year.
McKenzie said Leali’ifano gave the Wallabies a second playmaker option and 50-test veteran Cooper brought something unique off the bench.
“The last (test) he played, against Wales, he got man of the match,” McKenzie said. “The back end of the game, we’re looking for a bit of inspiration. Certainly, from what I’ve seen in training, (Cooper) hasn’t lost any of that. All the tricks are still there.”
Australia: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps; Scott Higginbotham, Michael Hooper (captain), Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper. Reserves: Josh Mann-Rae, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander, James Horwill, Matt Hodgson, Nic White, Quade Cooper, Rob Horne.