SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia coach Ewen McKenzie was forced to deny he was involved in an intimate relationship with a Wallabies team official, in an extraordinary news conference on Friday that focused almost exclusively on Kurtley Beale's suspension.
Beale was initially facing disciplinary action stemming from a slanging match with team business manager Di Patston on a flight to South America for last week's Rugby Championship test against Argentina.
That became a secondary issue, however, when the talented back was suspended on Thursday over allegations that he had distributed "deeply offensive" text messages about a team official in June.
Patston, who is on indefinite sick leave, has not been identified as the target of the text messages but reports in the Australian media suggested her close relationship with McKenzie had caused friction in the squad.
The coach denied that the Beale row had undermined his position with the players and bristled when he was asked directly whether he had been involved in an "intimate" relationship with Patston.
"I've got a professional relationship with her and I refute that," he said, barely containing his anger. "There are people out there and there's some sort of campaign to impugn that that's the situation. I've got a professional relationship with her and that's all."
McKenzie also described as "false" reports that he had been aware of the text messages in June, long before they were brought to the attention of senior Australian Rugby Union officials this week.
"I became aware of the existence of the text messages in Buenos Aires (last week). I know the content, I haven't seen the photos," he said. "When I became aware of it I forwarded the information on."
The news conference was ostensibly called to discuss the squad that McKenzie named on Friday to play New Zealand in the third Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane next week.
He was confident his squad was united for a challenge in taking on the world champions that is daunting enough without any off-field distractions. "I don't think I have a divided camp," he said. "I know there's been lots of talk in the newspapers and everyone's got an opinion, but I know the playing group.
"I've been open and frank in my time so if there's an issue, obviously we'll flesh them out."
Australia lost their last two matches of the Rugby Championship to South Africa and Argentina and have dropped to fourth in the world rankings as a consequence.
McKenzie said he still felt his team were making progress and regretted that the Beale row had become such a distraction in the run-up to such a big match.
"I'm annoyed because in the end we're trying to run a football programme and it's got sidetracked in many different ways," he said. "It's frustrating but there is challenge to get that back on track. I'll accept that challenge and get on with it."
Fly-half Quade Cooper has been recalled to the squad in place of Beale, whose omission offers Cooper the chance to play Test rugby for the first time this year after he missed the France series and Rugby Championship because of a shoulder injury.
McKenzie also included four uncapped players in wingers Tom English and Henry Speight, centre Kyle Godwin and prop Tetera Faulkner.