Wallabies captain Horwill faces his first battle

Any hope James Horwill had for a honeymoon period as the new Wallabies captain were rudely dashed by a snoozing teammate who could not raise himself after a night on the town.

Utility back James O’Connor’s no-show for a team photo and function for the naming of the Wallabies World Cup squad last week not only stole the thunder from Horwill’s appointment but also robbed him of one of his most potent attacking players for Saturday’s Tri-Nations decider against the All Blacks.

Horwill has since had to deal with the fall-out from media reports about O’Connor engaging in a Paris punch-up with fellow backline youngsters Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper during last year’s end of season tour, whilst training with snarling flanker and deposed captain Rocky Elsom breathing down his neck.

The towering 26-year-old lock has coped with bigger hurdles in his career — a serious knee injury that wiped out his 2010 season chief among them — but might have hoped for a few controversy-free days before his baptism of fire against the All Blacks.

“It’s kept me on my toes,” Horwill told reporters on Friday, in his only reference to the week’s dramas.

Horwill will march out onto Lang Park on Saturday for his first competitive match since the Super Rugby final, where he hoisted the trophy after leading the Queensland Reds side to their first title over the All Black-laden Crusaders.

Already missing O’Connor, banned for his indiscipline, Horwill nearly lost midfield general Will Genia after the scrumhalf suffered two dizzying head-knocks from team mates at training in the space of three days.

At least relations with his former captain Elsom have been cordial.

“We’ve spoken most days about different things, we’re still good mates,” said Horwill.

Eales advice
Horwill has been seeking advice from all quarters, and has hit up 1999 World Cup-winning skipper John Eales for inspiration.

“I’ve spoken to him a fair bit this year, and over the last week or so … I respect his opinion greatly.

“Being a second-rower watching John Eales as I was growing up, he was clearly a great of the game and in that era when his team was very successful.

“So he’s a guy I look up to as a player and also as a leader now.”

Horwill will have a fair idea of the scale of the task for next month’s global showpiece when he meets the All Blacks and their captain Richie McCaw, a fellow granite-jawed forward given the same reverence at home as Australians have for Eales.

The Queenslander has been on the wrong end of a number of hidings from the McCaw-led All Blacks in recent years, but enjoyed taking the points over the Crusaders captain in both games at Lang Park during the Super season.

Confidence booster
McCaw, who will run on for his 98th cap against the Wallabies, had a few words for Horwill on the step up to the A-grade.

“It’s a little bit different when you’re in charge, especially in the intensity of a Test match,” he told reporters before training at Lang Park.

“If it’s close, when your guys are looking at you for direction, you’ve got to make sure you have some things to go to. I suppose it puts a wee bit more pressure on you.”

“But I’m sure James … he’s played some big matches this year, I’m picking he’ll have most things sorted.”

While the Tri-Nations title pits the defending champion All Blacks against a side desperate to knock them off for a jolt of confidence ahead of the World Cup, McCaw was reluctant to give the match any significance beyond the silverware.

“Certainly going forward to the next couple of weeks, it [would] give you a bit of confidence, but what the teams do tomorrow night and a couple of months time, things will be totally different.

“But here and now we want to make sure we do the job right.” — Reuters

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