Fly-half headache for Wallabies

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans is faced with a fly-half dilemma ahead of a crowded international window for the Tri-Nations champions after injury ravaged his stock of options in the playmaker role.

Australia meet Scotland next Tuesday in Newcastle to open their season before taking on Six Nations champions Wales in a three-match series – a total of four Tests in just three weeks.

Deans looks likely to choose between gambling on Quade Cooper, the incumbent in the role who is returning from serious injury, or handing a Test debut to another New Zealand-born number 10 in Mike Harris, a solid if uninspired playmaker.

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Berrick Barnes is a more experienced option, but he has had an average season with the ailing New South Wales Waratahs and still has to negotiate another Super Rugby match on Saturday before rejoining the squad.

Australia’s stock of fly-halves looked reasonably healthy at the start of the season despite the knee injury that Cooper sustained at the World Cup, which kept him out of action until last month.

James O’Connor, one of Australia’s brightest rugby talents, had taken up the role at the Melbourne Rebels, while Christian Lealiifano was making a strong claim for an international call-up with some fine displays for the resurgent ACT Brumbies.

But then O’Connor, who many believe is being groomed for the role by Deans, damaged his liver in late April before Lealiifano was ruled out for the season when he broke his ankle in early May.

The loss of O’Connor looked like it was only going to be a temporary setback as Wallabies full-back Kurtley Beale moved into the role with the Rebels and produced a series of outstanding displays.

Injury stuck again last weekend, however, and Beale was forced to have surgery on an injured shoulder, although there is some hope that he might play a part in the Wales series.

Cooper, whose mercurial playmaking was instrumental in the Wallabies winning the Tri-Nations last year, capped a miserable World Cup when he was injured in the third place play-off. After what he described as a “tough seven months” recuperating on the sidelines, Cooper said this week that he was confident he would be able to perform if called upon.

“I’ve only played one game and a half but I’ve felt good out there,” he said. “It’s a matter of keep ticking the boxes and keep moving on. If I get the opportunity, I’ll put my hand up and give it everything I’ve got.”

A freak hamstring injury to lock James Horwill means Deans will also need to name a new captain with openside flanker David Pocock expected to get the nod ahead of scrum-half Will Genia when the team for the Scotland match is named tomorrow.

Whoever is chosen at fly-half and captain, the Wallabies should have enough firepower to see off a Scotland team looking for first win in Australia since 1982.

Deans will not have forgotten, however, how his experimental team were beaten by Samoa in Sydney in the opening match of last season.

And although he is philosophical about the impact of injuries, he must be hoping his resources for the Wales series are not further depleted in this weekend’s Super Rugby matches. “Injuries are part of the game,” the New Zealander said on Monday. “The key thing is to look out the front window. When we decide on the final squad post-Newcastle, we will have 30 fit blokes proud to pull on the Wallabies jersey.”