Posted: Tuesday September 13, 2011 4:47 AM

World Cup: Digby defensive hole worries Wallabies

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) -Australia's attempts at winning a record third Rugby World Cup might falter if a capable replacement can't be found to fulfill the injured Digby Ioane's defensive responsibilities in covering for Quade Cooper in the front line.

Neither Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia nor winger Adam Ashley-Cooper could say who would patrol the flyhalf channel in the pivotal Pool C match against Ireland on Saturday in the wake of Ioane fracturing his thumb in the win against Italy at the weekend.

"I don't know what's going to happen with that, to be honest,'' Genia said Tuesday. "Whoever jumps in on the wing might have to defend in that first channel. (Ioane) is a world-class player; he gets you over the advantage line more often than not, so it's a big loss.''

Ashley-Cooper struggled to nominate a replacement for a player who also topped the tackle count and attacking runs against Italy.

"Losing Digby, that certainly throws a bit of a spanner in the works,'' he said. "I think there's a few backline players unsure where they'll be playing this week. I'll defend anywhere like I'll play anywhere, but that's up to (coach) Robbie (Deans) and the coaching staff. We're training this afternoon and we're going to try out a few combinations there and get a feel for the dynamic.

"Injuries are part of the game and you can always expect to lose a couple of players along the way, but Digby is a massive blow to our team. He's been a star performer of the backline and the team all year. To lose Digby is upsetting. I can't imagine how he's feeling.''

Ioane was hurt in the second half after being accidentally kicked by Italy winger Mirco Bergamasco as he tried to pick up a loose ball, but he played the remaining 20 minutes of the match and scored the last of Australia's four second-half tries to earn the Wallabies a bonus point.

The 26-year-old Ioane will undergo surgery and has his sights set on returning for the quarterfinals.

He has scored nine tries in 17 tests and is powerful runner of the ball, but Australia will arguably miss his role in defensively stiffening the midfield axis even more. A tackling fulcrum of Ioane, Pat McCabe and Anthony Fainga'a presents opponents with little leeway up the middle.

It also allows Cooper, who is less proficient in defense, to drop into a back three that launches counterattacks from deep in their own half.

Deans is expected to retain the same defensive alignment, meaning Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor look set to fill the back trio for the match at Eden Park which is likely to pit the loser against defending world champion South Africa in the quarterfinals.

Fainga'a looks the likeliest player to defend at flyhalf, allowing the more experienced Ashley-Cooper to slot into his preferred outside center position and mark up against Ireland great Brian O'Driscoll.

McCabe and Fainga'a have played only a combined 15 tests and, if chosen to pair up in defense, could expect to receive a lot of traffic from an energetic backrow of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and the emerging Sean O'Brien.

Having starred defensively as Australia beat the All Blacks to win the Tri-Nations last month, Fainga'a had an unhappy match Sunday and was replaced soon after the break, although he did execute one crunching jackknifing tackle that cut Italy center Gonzalo Garcia in half.

Fainga'a is well aware of what Ioane's absence means for the team.

"It brings a lot of pressure on everyone,'' Fainga'a said. "It just means everyone just has to chip in a bit more.''
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