Robbie Deans must install Berrick Barnes in his starting 15 if the Wallabies are to beat the All Blacks in Sunday’s second semi final. Barnes’ poise and direction will be essential if Australia – and Quade Cooper – are going to withstand the Eden Park pressure cooker.
With Brumbies battering ram Pat McCabe likely to miss the game after re-injuring his shoulder, Barnes’ selection wont be at Coopers expense.
This week Deans publicly backed the fly-half despite his confused and desperate effort against the Springboks, but who’s to say what Deans would do if McCabe – who he clearly favours in the midfield – had been fit and firing?
Cooper is a special player when given the time and space to operate, but a quarter final showing which included a charged down kick, some errant passes, poor kicking and repeated misfires when running the ball, will see him targeted even more than usual – by both the 15 All Blacks on the field and the 60,000 around it.
Speaking of time and space, Cooper may yet have plenty of both.
Deans may be forced to start him at fullback, if, and please join me in praying this doesn’t happen, Kurtley Beale’s hamstring doesn’t come good in time.
Wherever he plays, it’s clear that the mercurial yet inconsistent Cooper needs a cool head alongside him.
The influence of Barnes in the backline is as pronounced as David Pocock’s in the pack – when either is off the field, the Wallabies look a lesser side. Barnes operates well under pressure, and he’ll take some of that pressure from Cooper’s shoulders.
His deft kick into the corner in the dying minutes against South Africa led to the penalty goal that put them back in front. If Australia persist with the field position tactics that saw them dubbed the ‘Dullabies’ over the ditch, and saw them win, then who better to make sure it works.
The host nation also have their selection issues.
With Dan Carter out, and replacement All Black fly-half Colin Slade aggravating a groin injury against Argentina, 22 year old third string playmaker Aaron Cruden will likely don the number 10 this week.
To put that selection into perspective, little more than a week ago, Cruden was kicking back in Palmerston North, drinking beers and skateboarding. He still has the grazes on the knees to prove it.
He could well be overawed by the occasion, but outside him lie arguably the strongest centre pairing in the competition.
In a poor first half against Argentina, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith stood out, taking the Pumas on in the midfield. Aside from Piri Weepu, Nonu was the standout for the men in black. He and Smith will again guide the black back line, and that means direct and powerful midfield running, something that the league educated Barnes knows only too well.
Let’s hope that we see some of the aggressive running rugby that the Wallabies can produce. It’s happened between these sides before.
However, in a stage of the tournament where tries are scarce and the four teams left are painfully aware of the consequences of an error, Sunday’s semi-final could well be a tough, defensive kick-fest, with a try or two and the winner decided on penalties.
With Weepu in stellar goal kicking form, field position will be paramount and poise under pressure will be needed. Barnes can provide both.