Hooper sees a ray of hope against the All Blacks
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Michael Hooper and his embattled Wallabies teammates have been given barely any chance in the last Bledisloe Cup match of the season, so tumultuous has their preparation been for a test against a New Zealand team that so rarely loses.
Motivation for both teams has been stirred by New Zealand’s last-minute, 27-25 loss in South Africa two weeks ago — the first defeat in 23 tests for the No. 1-ranked All Blacks.
What are the chances of back-to-back defeats? Almost unheard of: only three times has it happened in the last decade.
Yet it’s given Hooper a smidgeon of hope for Saturday’s game in Brisbane, scene of the last time it occurred. The All Blacks lost in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Brisbane in consecutive weeks in August 2011 to surrender the then Tri-Nations title to Australia, but shrugged that off quickly to win the World Cup at home a couple of months later.
Hooper — the 22-year-old flanker thrust in as skipper after a succession of injuries that the Wallabies refer to as the “captain’s curse” — has never beaten the All Blacks. He has lost five and drawn two of his seven Bledisloe Cup tests and has never played them coming off a loss.
But he has played them coming off a draw, and the memories of the backlash still hurt him. Australia held the All Blacks 12-12 in Sydney to open the 2014 Bledisloe Cup, but were smashed 51-20 at Eden Park in Auckland the following week. The Wallabies had narrow home wins over the Springboks and Pumas to stay in touch in the Rugby Championship, but then lost in South Africa and Argentina to slip down to No. 4 in the world rankings.
On a flight between those away losses, an off-field saga unraveled after utility back Kurtley Beale got into a heated argument with the team’s business manager, Di Patston. She quit, and Beale was suspended, pending an investigation. It was later revealed that he’d sent offensive text messages around in June, including to Patston, and the fallout from that is lingering.
There’s been reports of a split in the team — something Hooper adamantly denies — and of conflict between the players and coach Ewen McKenzie — also denied by coach and players. Two things are almost certain: Beale is likely to be cast aside permanently, and McKenzie could go, too, if the Wallabies don’t start winning.
“With distractions going on, I’ve been impressed with how the guys have reacted this week,” Hooper said Friday. “Big point to prove. It could be a galvanizing moment for us.
“In the team room, there’s positivity. Yes, there’ve been a few backward steps in the past couple of weeks, but we’re learning ... staff and players.”
New Zealand may have wrapped up the Bledisloe Cup for the 12th year with the comprehensive win in Auckland, but there’s always something on the line when the Tasman rivals meet. The Australians have said this week they’re desperate to win in Adam Ashley-Cooper’s 100th test, and to ease some pressure on McKenzie.
“This is a chance for us to draw the series — it’s something that some of the guys are starting to lick their lips to think that you could be sitting in the change room on the weekend of one of Australia’s greatest players playing 100 games with a win and drawing the series,” Hooper said. “They’re the pinnacle. We’re chasing them.”
Australia drafted in Christian Leali’ifano in the absence of Beale. Quade Cooper recovered from shoulder surgery to take a spot on the bench for his first test of the season, and offer something unique from the bench.
When announcing the five changes to his All Blacks team, including the retention of Beauden Barrett ahead of Aaron Cruden at No. 10, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen noted the presence of Cooper, who was instrumental in Australia two most recent Bledisloe test wins in 2010 and ’11.
“Coming off the bench he’ll be really energetic and when he’s on he’s a super player — he’s magical,” Hansen said. “What he’ll bring is a lot of enthusiasm.”
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said he has ignored the swirling controversy around the Australian team because his squad had one focus this weekend.
“When you come off a loss as an All Black it sort of hardens your resolve,” he said. “Playing the Wallabies in a place like this brings out the best in our squad.”
Hansen said the All Blacks were agitated by the last-minute loss in South Africa, and desperate to rebound. But didn’t expect the under-fire Wallabies to be easy pickings.
“I don’t see them crumbling,” he said. “I see them being a very dangerous beast this week.”