Ashley-Cooper ready for bullfight as he moves closer to centre of the action
Firing line … Adam Ashley-Cooper has been switched to inside-centre for tomorrow night's clash with South Africa's high-flying Bulls at Allianz Stadium. Ashley-Cooper will partner Rob Horne in the Waratahs’ midfield. Photo: Steve Christo
WARATAHS utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper says he is readying his shoulders in anticipation of his return to the midfield against South African conference leaders the Bulls tomorrow night.
Ashley-Cooper was yesterday named at inside-centre in a heavily reshuffled backs combination tasked with shutting down the masterful attack of Bulls' halves Morne Steyn and Francois Hougaard.
It will give the versatile Test back the chance to touch the ball more than he has this season but also puts him firmly in the line of fire against the imposing visitors.
''I'm ready, I'm not sure my shoulders are though,'' Ashley-Cooper joked. ''But I've certainly addressed that type of defence in training this week. It'll be a little different to defending in the back, that's for sure, but I'm ready.''
He will partner in the midfield with Rob Horne, who returns after a two-game suspension, but says his move in from fullback is as much about attack as defence.
''I think the motive behind the change is to allow me to get a little bit more ball through the hands,'' he said. ''Our attack throughout the outside backs has been struggling a little in recent weeks and they're keen to get me in and closer to the action. And I enjoy the confrontation and the action in the midfield.''
Ashley-Cooper's move infield is at the expense of Tom Carter, who will start on the bench tomorrow. Tom Kingston has moved back to the right wing, Atieli Pakalani has been retained on the left and Daniel Halangahu will start at fullback.
The Waratahs hope Ashley-Cooper, who has played a lot of Test rugby at 12, will form a solid connection between Berrick Barnes and the outside backs in an effort to put the Bulls under early scoreboard pressure. ''What [Barnes] did really well last week was take the line on and get us over the advantage line,'' he said. ''From there it's more the support after we lose Berrick [from the play] - the organisation in the forwards and the connection between the outside backs and Barnesy.''
The Waratahs expect a superior tactical approach from the Bulls, as well as the famed size and ferocity of their forwards. ''They apply a lot of pressure in the opposition 22 and that comes from a really good kicking game from [five-eighth] Morne Steyn and [halfback] Francois Hougaard,'' Ashley-Cooper said. ''Off the back of that we have to be positionally sound - we certainly addressed that [this week] - and prevent any pressure they apply to us in our 22.''
In other changes to the starting line-up, Rocky Elsom claims a spot as well as the captaincy. Elsom will replace Dave Dennis in the back row and take over from prop Benn Robinson, who has led the side since the Waratahs' defeat of the Sharks in round five.
The veteran Test breakaway's aggressive, physical playing style is sorely needed at this stage of the season. The loss of Test hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau to concussion is a blow for NSW. John Ulugia has been working hard on his set-piece play this week and will be challenged by the Bulls' powerful front-rowers Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dawie Steyn and Werner Kruger.
Dean Mumm will start in the second row once more after a rest last week, Chris Alcock has made it back from appendicitis to start on the openside and Sarel Pretorius will reclaim the starting halfback spot from Brendan McKibbin.
Ashley-Cooper said the squad was feeling the self-imposed pressure to perform better. ''The pressure for us in the team is not built on the external pressure of the media, the fans or supporters, it's [from] us with the disappointment of knowing that we haven't performed as well as we should have,'' he said.
''This team does respond well when it's backs against the wall - we know that - but it really comes down to taking that responsibility upon yourself to put your hand up and really show that you care and it means something to you.''
Waratahs: Daniel Halangahu, Tom Kingston, Rob Horne, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Atieli Pakalani, Berrick Barnes, Sarel Pretorius, Wycliff Palu, Chris Alcock, Rocky Elsom (c), Kane Douglas, Dean Mumm, Sekope Kepu, John Ulugia, Benn Robinson. Res: John Mann-Rea, Jeremy Tilse, Sitaleki Timani, Lopeti Timani, Dave Dennis, Brendan McKibbin, Tom Carter.