McKenzie causes stir to avoid wooden spoon

Both sides are chasing their first win but only the Wallabies could feel particularly aggrieved at their precarious situation, having strode confidently into the tournament under new coach Ewen McKenzie.

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After three rounds, the Wallabies sit bottom of the table behind the underdog Pumas and their coach’s pledge to win by playing “the Australian way” have been made to look foolish by two losses to New Zealand and a record hiding by South Africa on home soil.

With alarm bells ringing Down Under and rugby writers moaning of fans turning away from the game, McKenzie has not gone back to the drawing board so much as to rip it off the wall and hurl it out of the window.

Out-of-sorts scrumhalf Will Genia, the Wallabies’ “only world XV player” in the words of local pundit Greg Growden, has been dropped to the bench and Ben Mowen, a backrower with only six tests under his belt, has been awarded the captaincy.

The stunning gambit has been branded Australian rugby’s ‘line in the sand’ moment, a move to shock an underperforming side out of its torpor and head off a potentially cataclysmic defeat against highly physical opponents desperate to post their first win in the tournament.

McKenzie, who raised eyebrows by suggesting he would need to “dumb down” the game plan after the painful 38-12 loss to the Springboks in Brisbane, shrugged it all off as tinkering.

“There are little areas of the game where we can tweak things. We’ve made some minor adjustments,” he said this week.

“If you change big things, you actually don’t know what makes the biggest influence.

“So with small changes – which is what we’ve been doing for the last few weeks – we’ll get there.”

HENRY HELP

Beset by a shocking run of injuries, Australia under former coach Robbie Deans hung tight to defeat Argentina twice last year and finished a creditable second behind the champion All Blacks.

No matter the gap in class between the sides, a repeat of last week’s effort against South Africa would almost certainly see the Wallabies crumble to defeat against the Pumas, who will look to exploit the hosts’ brittle pack in the scrum.

After being humiliated 73-13 by the Springboks in Soweto, Argentina regained their pride with a narrow loss in the return match at Mendoza and surprised the All Blacks last week in Hamilton with an early try before being reeled in.

Head coach Santiago Phelan has shaken up his backline, recalling scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli and centres Felipe Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi among four changes in the hope of bringing more firepower to Subiaco Oval.

But the forwards, who were combative against New Zealand’s formidable pack, are untouched barring a promotion to the starting side for hooker Agustin Creevy.

Led by captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Argentina have also had some insights in how to beat the Wallabies from former World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry, whose New Zealand teams dominated Australia for the better part of a decade.

“He added a lot of confidence and knowledge in the way to attack,” Contepomi said of Henry, who has worked with Argentina as a coaching consultant.

“He knows the Wallabies much better than we do, and it’s great to have his inside knowledge… He can add to our rugby culture.”

Australia team: 15-Israel Folau, 14-James O’Connor, 13-Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12-Christian Leali’ifano, 11-Nick Cummins, 10-Quade Cooper, 9-Nic White, 8-Ben Mowen (captain), 7-Michael Hooper, 6-Scott Fardy, 5-Kane Douglas, 4-Rob Simmons, 3-Ben Alexander, 2-Stephen Moore, 1-James Slipper

Replacements: 16-Saia Fainga’a, 17-Scott Sio, 18-Sekope Kepu, 19-Sitaleki Timani, 20-Ben McCalman, 21-Will Genia, 22-Matt Toomua, 23-Tevita Kuridrani

Argentina: 15-Juan Martin Hernandez, 14-Horacio Agulla, 13-Gonzalo Tiesi, 12-Felipe Contepomi, 11-Juan Imhoff, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 9-Tomas Cubelli; 8-Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7-Pablo Matera, 6-Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (captain), 5-Julio Farias Cabello, 4-Manuel Carizza, 3-Juan Figallo, 2-Agustin Creevy, 1-Marcos Ayerza

Replacements: 16-Eusebio Guinazu, 17-Nahuel Lobo, 18-Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19-Mariano Galarza, 20-Benjamin Macome, 21-Martín Landajo, 22-Santiago Fernandez, 23-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino

Referee: George Clancy

(Editing by …)

O’Connor edges closer to new rugby deal

The playing future of James O’Connor could be sorted as early as next week as the star Wallaby edges closer to a reunion with the Western Force.

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O’Connor has been left in limbo at Super Rugby level since being dumped by the Melbourne Rebels in July.

The 23-year-old is keen to continue his international career with the Wallabies, but he needs to earn a deal with the Force if that is to happen.

Just in case his former club don’t come to the party with an offer, O’Connor’s manager has been seeking out other options.

A code switch to the NRL could be on the cards, along with a playing stint in Europe.

But O’Connor remains hopeful that won’t be necessary, expressing his desire to achieve greater heights with the Wallabies.

“I’m very happy in rugby at the moment,” O’Connor said ahead of Saturday night’s Test against Argentina in Perth.

“I’ve got a lot I want to achieve in this game with this group.

“I don’t think we’ve reached anywhere near our peak.”

The Wallabies have a week off after taking on Argentina, and O’Connor hopes to get everything sorted during that period.

“That’s when I can take some time out to evaluate where I’m at,” he said.

“If all things are going well, it could be done in that week – possibly.

“I love Perth. It’s an amazing city. I spent four years here and I’ve come back every year as well for holidays and to catch up with mates.

“But it’s in my manager’s hands.”

For the moment, O’Connor is desperate to help the Wallabies snap their four-game losing run.

Australia were thumped 38-12 by the Springboks in Brisbane last week, and O’Connor said the team’s recent lean trot had left the players hurting and hungry to atone.

“A Test match loss is a lot heavier than a Super Rugby loss,” O’Connor said.

“You’re never ready for it. It’s not something you enjoy at all. It’s very frustrating.

“You just want to get out there as soon as possible and start working on how to fix it.”

Lotus search for Raikkonen F1 successor

Lotus team principal Eric Boullier on Thursday revealed he has opened talks with several drivers as he searches for a successor to Kimi Raikkonen.

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Raikkonen has confirmed he will return to Ferrari on a two-year contract from next season and Boullier is keen to move quickly to line up the Finn’s replacement.

Boullier believes Lotus are an attractive option for ambitious drivers, with Felipe Massa – ousted from Ferrari in favour of Raikkonen – Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta at Force India among the reported contenders.

“We are currently in discussion with a few people and will make a decision shortly,” Boullier said.

“We are in the privileged position of being the most desirable team on the grid with a seat available.

“So we are therefore in no rush to announce anyone without establishing what will be the best for our team and the future.”

Following a two-year sabbatical in rallying after leaving Ferrari at the end of 2009, Raikkonen returned to Formula One with Lotus at the start of last season.

The 2007 world champion helped the team back onto the top step of the podium, initially in Abu Dhabi last season and Australia at the start of this year’s campaign.

Boullier paid tribute to the Finn but made it clear he was confident Lotus can still thrive without him.

“Two years ago, when we decided to sign him, quite a few people thought we were crazy,” he said.

“We’ve been working with an amazing racer, who scored points for the team 27 times in a row and won two races.

“But we’ve had (Michael) Schumacher, (Fernando) Alonso, Raikkonen. New champions will join the list here soon I’m sure.”

US, Russia in crucial Syria talks after Putin appeal

In talks reminiscent of Cold War-era summits, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in Geneva to pore over Moscow’s plans to neutralise Syria’s chemical arsenal.

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Russia’s shock announcement this week of a plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons up-ended US plans for military action in response to an alleged chemical attack last month by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

   

President Barack Obama backed away from a threat to launch airstrikes against the regime, but the United States and main backer France have warned that military action is not off the table.

   

Revealing details of the proposal for the first time Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant said Moscow had given Washington a four-step plan for the weapons handover.

   

Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, Kommersant said the plan would see Damascus join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.

   

Syria’s opposition has denounced the plan as a delaying tactic, warning it will only lead to more deaths in a conflict that has already killed more than 110,000 people since March 2011.

   

The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Selim Idriss, said in a video posted on YouTube that the rebels categorically rejected the Russian plan.

   

Idriss told world powers they should not “be satisfied only by removing the chemical weapon, which is the tool of a crime, but judge the author of the crime before the International Criminal Court.”

   

Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Putin took the unusual step of penning a commentary in the New York Times warning that unilateral US military action could unleash chaos.

   

Appealing directly to US voters and policy-makers over Obama’s head, Putin wrote: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.

   

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance,” Putin said.

   

Drawing on a passage in Obama’s Tuesday night address that said the United States has an “exceptional” role to play, Putin said it was wrong for any power to presume a unique leadership role.

   

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” he wrote.

   

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

   

Putin welcomed Washington’s willingness to engage with the Moscow initiative, but warned that carrying out strikes without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, would destroy the credibility of the world body.

   

“No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage,” he said, referring to the United Nations’ failed inter-war predecessor.

   

Russia is a traditional ally of Assad, and Moscow, backed by China, has blocked any attempt to sanction his regime through the United Nations.

   

Envoys from the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — held inconclusive talks on Syria at the United Nations on Wednesday.

   

The talks in Geneva were expected to last two to three days and also focus on revitalising efforts to call a peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.

   

As well as Lavrov, Kerry was due to meet UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss UN-backed efforts to bring the Assad regime to the table with the opposition rebels.

   

Western officials have claimed the sudden renewal of diplomatic efforts on Syria was the result of the military threats, but have questioned whether Assad can be trusted to hand over chemical weapons.

   

Washington alleges that some 1,400 people died in the chemical attack on August 21 and was rallying support for a military response when the Russian proposal emerged.

   

Obama had been struggling to win domestic support for unilateral action and in an address to the American people on Tuesday postponed, but did not withdraw, the threat of military action.

   

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that a much-awaited report by UN inspectors into the attack will “probably” be published on Monday.

   

“It will say that there was a chemical massacre,” Fabius told French radio Thursday.

   

In his commentary, Putin again accused Syrian rebels of being behind the attack.

   

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria,” Putin wrote.

   

“But there is every reason to believe it was not used by the Syrian Army but by opposition forces to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons,” he said.

Stepanek, Monaco to open Davis Cup semi

Radek Stepanek of holders Czech Republic will take on Argentina’s Juan Monaco in the opening rubber of the Davis Cup semi-finals starting in Prague on Friday.

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Stepanek, the world No.61 and second-ranked Czech, will face Argentina’s 30th-ranked Monaco at Prague’s O2 Arena.

After that rubber, fifth-ranked Tomas Berdych will face world No.93 Leonardo Mayer on the superfast acrylic hardcourt, on which the Czechs won last year’s final against Spain.

“We have played lots of games against each other. He plays great tennis from the baseline,” the 34-year-old Stepanek told reporters after the draw on Thursday.

“I’ll try to use the surface; to take advantage of it.”

On Saturday, the Czech Republic’s Jiri Vesely and Lukas Rosol are due to face Argentina’s Horacio Zeballos and Carlos Berlocq in the doubles rubber.

But the Czechs are likely to change their pairing and rely on Berdych and Stepanek, who have so far only lost one of 13 Davis Cup doubles rubbers together since teaming up in 2007.

The winner of the tie will take on Canada or Serbia in the November 15-17 finals.

The two teams last clashed in 2012 when the Czechs beat Argentina 3-2 in the semi-finals in Buenos Aires, before lifting the trophy after a 3-2 final win against Spain. Argentina, who have played three finals in the past seven years, are seeking their first Davis Cup.

Argentine captain Martin Jaite has shunned world No.45 Berlocq for the singles, while his Czech counterpart is likely to rest out-of-form 46th-ranked Rosol.

Berdych said he was not surprised by the choice as Mayer is good on hard surfaces.

“He has a great serve; he tries to play aggressively,” said Berdych.

“But I’ll focus on myself. I need to win three sets and that’s it.”

Argentina are missing their top star Juan Martin del Potro, who is taking a break from the competition this year, as well as an injured David Nalbandian, who has won both Davis Cup doubles so far this year with Zeballos.

Mikkelsen leads Rally Aust after 2 stages

Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway won the first special stage and was second in the other on Thursday to lead Rally Australia after the opening day.

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Mikkelsen had an overall time of two minutes, 45.3 seconds after the two 1.6km special stages. Kris Meeke of Northern Ireland, who led qualifying earlier in the day, was second in 2:46.2 and Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland was third in 2:46.7.

Sebastien Ogier of France, Mikkelsen’s Volkswagen Motorsport teammate who leads the World Rally Championship standings by 75 points and could clinch the 2013 title with a win this weekend, won the second stage and sits fourth overall in 2:46.8 – 1.5 seconds behind.

Mikkelsen, who leads a WRC event for the first time, clipped a barrier with the left-hand front corner of his car on the second loop of the course.

“The stage was OK but I think the organisers sprayed water on the road after the first pass and suddenly it was super slippery,” Mikkelsen said. “I think we’re OK; no damage.”

Ogier said he looked forward to Friday’s first full day on the gravel roads in the forests outside Coffs Harbour.

“I just tried to keep out of trouble here, but it was tricky because we decided to start with the hard (compound) tyres,” Ogier said. “Not the best in the slippery stuff – we didn’t expect more water on the stage. Tomorrow is the real start of the rally.”

Mikko Hirvonen is fifth overall, with Thierry Neuville, who is closest to Ogier in the standings, sixth.

Coffs Harbour resident Nathan Quinn ended the day 10th on his debut in a Mini.

“I’m learning a lot pretty quickly. Now I can’t wait to get out on the wide roads tomorrow,” Quinn said.

Seventh overall is Mads Ostberg of Norway (Qatar M-Sport), ahead of Russian Evgeny Novikov (Qatar M-Sport) and Khalid Al-Qassimi, United Arab Emirates (Citroen).

The 22-stage, 354km Rally Australia, 10th of 13 stops on the world championship, ends on Sunday.

Ferrari say Raikkonen not an anti-Alonso choice

“At Ferrari, everyone knows the interests of the team come first and only then those of the individual.

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Fernando is a key asset for this team and he will be for a long time.

“I’m sure he is the first to be happy with a choice made to strengthen the group, because he is too intelligent not to realise that a stronger team can only be an advantage,” added the Italian.

Double world champion Alonso had made clear before the appointment that he would be happy to continue with under-performing Brazilian Felipe Massa as his team mate.

In comments on Wednesday, after the announcement from Maranello, the Spaniard paid tribute to the departing Massa and welcomed his new “travelling companion” without mentioning the Finn by name.

Domenicali said the driver combination of Alonso and Raikkonen was the best Ferrari could have and both would start on equal terms.

The Italian also addressed concerns about Raikkonen’s ability to work as a team player and in helping to develop and improve the car technically.

“Everyone has their own ways and you can’t expect a Finn to start telling jokes in Italian or playing the clown,” he said. “Honestly, I think the combination of Fernando’s expressive and passionate Latin character and the cool style, to call it that, of someone like Kimi, seems to appeal to many.

“As for the technical side of things, not only do we know full well how much Kimi can contribute at an important time like this…but we also have first hand information from James Allison, as to how much the Finn has also progressed in this area over the past two years.”

Allison was with Raikkonen at Lotus, where he was technical director, before starting work with Ferrari this month.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Alison Wildey)

No rest for Nadal as Spain pick him for Davis Cup singles

There had been doubt over world number two Nadal’s participation in the three-day tie in Madrid after his recent exertions in New York where he beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Monday’s U.

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S. Open final.

Nadal arrived in the Spanish capital early on Wednesday and after training at the “Magic Box” venue the 27-year-old was named in the team for Thursday’s draw by captain Alex Corretja.

“When I have been asked and have been free of injury I have always turned out to try to help the team win points and secure victories,” Nadal told a news conference.

“I have been playing at the maximum intensity for practically a whole month and obviously that has a draining effect,” he added.

“But I am ready for tomorrow and it’s just going to require another little bit of effort. I hope to be competitive even though I have spent very few hours on the court.”

Stakhovsky caused a huge upset at Wimbledon this year when he defeated seven-times champion Roger Federer in the second round but Nadal should have little trouble against the world number 92, especially as the tie is on his favoured clay.

Nadal has won 20 of his 21 Davis Cup singles matches, including a perfect 16 out of 16 on clay.

Spain number two Fernando Verdasco will play Ukraine number one Alexandr Dolgopolov in the opening singles, with the doubles to come on Saturday and the reverse singles on Sunday in the first meeting between the two nations.

Spain are in the playoffs after losing away to Milos Raonic’s Canada in the first round in February when Nadal, who had just returned from a seven-month injury layoff, did not feature. They had last fallen in the first round in 2006 when a team also missing Nadal was beaten 4-1 by Belarus on indoor carpet in Minsk.

In other World Group playoff ties Poland’s hopes of joining the elite for the first time have been dealt a huge blow after Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz was ruled out with a back injury for the home tie against Australia in Warsaw.

Andy Murray will lead Britain’s attempt to return to the World Group and will face 16-year-old Croatian Borna Coric in the opening singles rubber in Umag.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Martyn Herman)

Czech Stepanek faces Argentine Monaco in Davis Cup opener

World number five Tomas Berdych will then take on Argentine Leonardo Mayer in the second of the opening day’s matches in Prague as the Czechs play in front of a home crowd for the first time this season.

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Czech talisman Stepanek won the decisive match of the 2012 final against Spain to earn his country the Cup for the first time as an independent nation in Prague last November.

The 34-year-old, who had neck surgery in January, comes into the competition off the back of winning the men’s doubles title with Leander Paes at Flushing Meadows last weekend.

“Physically, I have no problem,” news website idnes.cz quoted Stepanek as saying. “Three days (of matches) have never been a problem. It won’t be a problem now.”

Argentina, runners-up to Spain in 2011, were beaten by the Czechs in Buenos Aires at the same stage last year and head into the semis without world number seven Juan Martin Del Potro.

For the second singles rubber, Argentine captain Martin Jaite has surprisingly turned to the lowest ranked player on the team, world number 93 Mayer.

“I had four good players and I believe that Leo will play great,” Jaite was reported as saying by news agency CTK.

For Saturday’s doubles match, Czechs Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely are pencilled in to face Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos.

However, the Czechs are likely to turn instead to Stepanek and Berdych, who played all key matches in last year’s title run.

“We are ready to play the role of favourites but nothing easy is expected,” Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil said.

The winners of the Prague tie will face either Canada or Serbia in the November 15-17 final.

The Czechs lifted the Cup last year for the first time since Czechoslovakia won in 1980.

Argentina have yet to win the Davis Cup despite four appearances in the final.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Alison Wildey)