AUSTRALIA'S World Cup prospects are close to suffering a huge blow with flying fullback Kurtley Beale in huge doubt for the semifinal against the All Blacks at Eden Park on Sunday because of a hamstring injury.
The loss of the fullback may not bring all of Australia to its knees, yet his absence would rival that of the All Blacks losing Dan Carter, so pivotal is Beale to their hopes.
Many of Australia's best attacks stem from his runs, making him even more important as Quade Cooper struggles to bring influence or his tricks to the World Cup arena.
Australia put a brave face on the situation, insisting that if Beale's injury is as bad as rumour suggests he would have been on the plane home.
However, the best indications - while not necessarily iron-clad in reliability - are that he has a 20 per cent chance of playing. The 22-year-old was troubled by the injury before the remarkable quarter-final win over South Africa and he did not go the distance in Wellington.
Australia has a few options should Beale be out, the most likely being that Robbie Deans will shift 61-test utility Adam Ashley-Cooper from centre to fullback with Anthony Fainga'a starting in the No 13 jersey.
The Australian coach has a few options, especially with Pat McCabe's shoulder - damaged against South Africa - well on the mend, and another midfield thunderer in Rob Horne fit again.
Ashley-Cooper has played on the wing, while preferred wing James O'Connor's excellent display under the South African bombs could push him as the fullback option.
O'Connor offers a similar, unpredictable running style to Beale, whereas the 98kg Ashley-Cooper runs straight if more powerful lines.
Berrick Barnes, a creative director at inside centre, is looming as a starting prospect, although McCabe would be a more confrontational match-up against Ma'a Nonu.
The courage of Australia's quarter-final victory was a common theme among players talked to yesterday, with Ashley-Cooper saying: "As Rocky Elsom said last week, these games will be won on defence."
But even here, quality work in possession relieves the defensive burden, and halfback Will Genia said Australia could not rely so strongly on their courage again.
Genia said: "We made 150 tackles to their [South Africa's] 50 ... we knew we had it in us but we did it the hard way. If we play like that against the All Blacks they'll put us away."
Another casualty against South Africa, prop Sekope Kepu (ankle), has a strong chance of being fit to play.
Deans names his team on Friday.
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