Side-stepping Cooper piles pressure on Wallabies

AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Australia flyhalf Quade Cooper cranked up the pressure on himself and his team on Thursday as they began final preparations for their crucial Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand on Saturday at Eden Park.

Cooper was recalled to the side on Thursday 10 months after suffering a sickening knee injury at the same ground during the World Cup.

However, the New Zealand-born player was not prepared to discuss his return, or answer queries about facing the All Blacks again, when he fronted local reporters in Sydney.

"That's all I want to say is, I'm back. I'm fit, healthy - I'm ready to go. And I'll see everybody at Eden Park," Cooper told reporters at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney before stalking off.

Asked if he had anything else to add, he replied: "No, that's it". The whole exchange lasted around 10 seconds, according to stunned local media.

Virtually untouchable when the mood takes him at Super Rugby level, Cooper has struggled to impose his will on test matches, particularly against the All Blacks.

His most memorable meltdown came during the World Cup semi-final loss when he was jeered from the time he kicked the ball into touch from the opening whistle and played poorly thereafter.

Thursday's walkout caused a massive media storm in Australia, where Wallabies' coach Robbie Deans has come under increasing pressure after his side were beaten 27-19 by the All Blacks last week in Sydney.

Local media reported before the competition began that the New Zealander's job would be under threat if the Wallabies did not win the Rugby Championship or regain the Bledisloe Cup from the All Blacks, who have held it since 2003.

Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones added fuel to the fire on Thursday when he told New Zealand radio station LiveSport he thought Deans was "out of his depth" and that Australia were being "badly coached".


Australia have not beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1986 and Deans reinstated Cooper to provide the backline with an X-factor after their stilted performance last week in Sydney offered little creativity and enterprise.

"Quade will be very keen to get back out there and play," Deans said. "These blokes who play at this level understand you play in hostile environments, it's about what you do, how you respond.

"It's not so much about the past, it's about right now.

"Tough experiences produce one of two responses. Either you build resilience and develop your toughness and keep going, or you opt out. And I think you'll see a good response."

Deans may have unwittingly added to the pressure with his decision to drop fullback Kurtley Beale, widely regarded as a world class talent, after an uncharacteristically poor performance against New Zealand last week.

"He's still part of the group and there's no doubt he'll re-establish himself in time but obviously he wasn't a bundle of confidence last week and we need blokes this week who are," Deans said.

One factor that Deans needed to remedy quickly before Saturday's clash is the way in which the All Blacks pack upset scrumhalf Will Genia's rhythm and blasted the Wallabies' forwards off the ball at the breakdown.

Part of that onus now falls on rookie openside flanker Michael Hooper, who is making his first test start. Hooper will try to fill the gap left by the absence of David Pocock, who is expected to miss three months after having knee surgery.

The only change made by New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was at loosehead prop, where Wyatt Crockett replaces Tony Woodcock, who suffered a rib cartilage injury during last week's victory.

The All Blacks appeared rusty, but in control, in Sydney and wasted several opportunities to blow out the scoreline with handling errors and poor option taking.

"Australia will be pretty disappointed with how they played last week," Hansen told reporters in Auckland. "It sounds like they've battened down the hatches and are getting into it a wee bit.

"We've got to expect they'll raise their accuracy and intensity. We are going to have to do the same."

(Additional reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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