Sydney - New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was "dumbfounded" by Australia's selection of Kurtley Beale at flyhalf for Saturday's Rugby Championship opener and suggested it might have been a political move to keep the player in rugby union.
The versatile Beale was preferred to Bernard Foley despite playing inside centre outside the Wallabies' incumbent flyhalf for Super Rugby title winners New South Wales Waratahs this season, and off the bench in the June series against France.
Beale has made no secret of his desire to start in the number 10 shirt for his country and, with his contract up at the end of the season, has attracted the attention of Australia's National Rugby League teams.
"I was a little dumbfounded by it initially, and then came to the conclusion that maybe Ewen doesn't trust (Foley) to do what he wants against us," Hansen told reporters in Auckland before the squad departed for Sydney on Thursday.
"Or, if you think about it the other way, the other guy is out of contract and league are after him so the (Australian Rugby Union) have told him he's got to pick him."
Hansen's All Blacks side will be looking for a record 18th consecutive victory on Saturday at Sydney's Olympic Stadium as they begin their quest for a third Rugby Championship title in a row.
No stranger to pre-match mind games, Hansen suggested the Australians were putting the pressure on themselves by saying that this was the year they might win back the Bledisloe Cup, which the All Blacks have held since 2003.
The All Blacks coach also dismissed suggestions that the victory by the New South Wales Waratahs against an All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders side in the Super Rugby final earlier this month might be a pointer to the test match result.
"I think there's been a lot of talk that they won the Super (Rugby) so they'll win the Bledisloe Cup, and I think that's rubbish, there's no correlation at all," he said.
He saved his most scathing comments, however, for those who have suggested that his 33-year-old captain, three-times World Player of the Year Richie McCaw, might now be in decline.
"His form's bloody outstanding, I don't know who's been watching him, saying he's a spent force," Hansen growled.
"His work rate is tremendous and he's got influence from a captain's point of view that you can't buy. His future looks pretty good at this stage."
15 Israel Folau, 14 Pat McCabe, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nic White, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 James Slipper
Substitutes (one to be omitted): 16 James Hanson, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Scott Higginbotham, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 Bernard Foley, 24 Tevita Kuridrani
15 Ben Smith, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Substitutes: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Joe Moody, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa