All Blacks to target Mortlock

2008-09-11 11:10

Brisbane - With the Tri-Nations title on the line, the All Blacks could be targeting one of Australia's strongest players - captain Stirling Mortlock - as potentially a weak link in the decider.

Mortlock will shift to inside centre on Saturday as cover for the injured Berrick Barnes, who has been sidelined since injuring his shoulder against South Africa at Durban.

Australia won that match 27-15, but it's the result of the next match at Johannesburg that has been giving the Wallabies nightmares.

The Springboks hammered Australia 53-8 on Aug. 30, leaving the All Blacks in first place in the Tri-Nations with 14 points, one ahead of the Wallabies. Both teams have 3-2 records.

Australia coach Robbie Deans drafted in Ryan Cross at outside center and moved Mortlock in one place to No 12 among five changes for this match after his trial with rugby league convert Timana Tahu backfired in Johannesburg.

Tahu's inexperience in defence at No 12 was exposed by South Africa, one of the reasons Deans moved Mortlock out of his favoured outside centre role.

Deans also named a bench of five forwards and two backs, leaving him with no specialist cover in the playmaker's role at flyhalf, a decision described as risky by All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith.

"Not sure I would do it," Smith said on Thursday. "It is a pivotal position but I know Rob well, I've known him for a lot of years and he'll have a backup five-eighth in his mix, there's no doubt about that.

"They've had a kicking option there with Berrick Barnes and I'm not sure Stirling gives them that."

But Smith also said Mortlock has the ability to overcome any positional issues.

"Stirling's a great player, along with Richie (McCaw) he's one of the great players in the world at the moment," Smith said. "I guess he'll step up pretty easily there."

Mortlock and Cross will start a test together for the first time, but Australian flyhalf Matt Giteau said he had no concerns about having a third different midfield combination outside him in three matches.

"I think both centers complement each other really well. Stirling's adapted to it quite easily," Giteau said.

The All Blacks safely got through training on Thursday with reserve prop John Afoa, who has a shoulder injury, the only concern. A decision on Afoa's fitness will be made on Friday, with Neemia Tialata ready to step in.

New Zealand named a starting XV which was unchanged for the third straight Tri-Nations test, with captain McCaw, lock Brad Thorn and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu recovering from minor injuries that sidelined them for the one-off win over Samoa last week.

The Wallabies have an illness scare with backrower Rocky Elsom missing training Thursday due to the flu, but team officials said the Ireland-bound 39-Test veteran would be in Saturday's lineup at Suncorp Stadium.

"(Elsom) is just a little bit under the weather and I think they're being a bit careful with it to make sure he's fit for the game," Wallaby lock James Horwill said.

The All Blacks think Elsom will be a significant factor in the decider after his influential game was missed in the Wallabies' 39-10 loss to New Zealand in Auckland in the last head-to-head meeting. Australia had won convincingly the previous weekend in Sydney with Elsom in the team.

"They did miss Rocky Elsom in Auckland, obviously in the lineouts and he's a pretty good ball carrier as well," said McCaw. "They get quite a bit of inspiration from him, just what he brings to the team, his energy."



Adam Ashley-Cooper, Peter Hynes, Ryan Cross, Stirling Mortlock (captain), Lote Tuqiri, Matt Giteau, Sam Cordingley; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Al Baxter, James Horwill, Nathan Sharpe, Rocky Elsom, George Smith, Wycliff Palu.

Reserves: Adam Freier, Matt Dunning, Hugh McMeniman, Phil Waugh, Richard Brown, Brett Sheehan, Drew Mitchell.

New Zealand:

Mils Muliaina, Richard Kahui, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Greg Somerville, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Rodney So'oialo.

Reserves: Kevin Mealamu, John Afoa or Neemia Tialata, Anthony Boric, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Isaia Toeava.

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