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Cheika under pressure as All Blacks close on Bledisloe Cup

August 24, 2018
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The New Zealand team performs a traditional Maori challenge called a haka in front of the Australian team before the start of their rugby union test match in Sydney, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An All Blacks win in the second Bledisloe Cup test against Australia on Saturday will extend their hold on the trophy to 16 years and may shorten the tenure of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.

Calls for Cheika to resign after four years as Wallaby coach grew louder after Australia’s 38-13 loss in the first test at Sydney last weekend. The Wallabies led 6-5 at halftime but conceded 33 unanswered points in the second half, leading some fans — according to reports — to bang on the window of the coaches’ box calling on Cheika to refund their ticket price.

Public opinion likely would swing back in Cheika’s favor if the Wallabies can level the three-test Bledisloe Cup series on Saturday. But that seems unlikely given Australia hasn’t won a test at Eden Park since 1986 and the All Blacks are unbeaten at the Auckland stadium in 41 tests since 1991.

The flaws in the Wallabies’ performance last week were so deep they can have done little more than paper over the cracks in the seven days between matches. The All Blacks humiliated the Australian forwards, capturing eight out of 13 lineouts on Wallaby throws and securing a long series of penalties from collapsed scrums.

While the Wallabies were able to go to halftime with a one-point lead, the five-try second half from the All Blacks came as no surprise.

Cheika had sent out his players with one instruction, to try to tackle the All Blacks into submission. The plan worked for the first 35 minutes as the Wallabies swarmed around the ball carrier and their physical approach at the tackle area forced a number of handling errors.

But when All Blacks fullback Ben Smith slipped through a tackle and linked with winger Waisake Naholo just before halftime, all of the Wallabies effort was wasted. Scrumhalf Aaron Smith scored the first All Blacks try from that move, putting them back in the game, and the Wallabies were obviously fatigued by the toll of making so many tackles.

Aaron Smith, Michael Hooper

New Zealand scored again immediately after the restart and the landslide began.

Cheika will have learned, if he didn’t know already, that no team can beat the All Blacks by simply trying to prevent them from scoring. They are too dangerous from turnover ball for that tactic to be successful.

Teams can only beat New Zealand by trying to outscore them, but the Wallabies made no effort to do that last weekend.

Cheika has to revise his tactics for Saturday’s match but it’s unlikely he has the talent at his disposal to make sweeping changes to the Australian game plan.

He has moved to shore up his scrum by naming Michael Alaalatoa and Scott Sio as his props and answered last week’s lineout disaster by naming uncapped hooker Folau Faingaa on the bench.

Cheika has been forced to make two changes to his backline because of an injury to fullback Israel Folau, moving Dane Haylett-Perry to fullback and handing Jack Maddocks his first test start on the wing.

Still pugnacious, Cheika said he believes the Wallabies can beat the All Blacks on Saturday.

“I don’t think anyone’s expecting us to do it so I don’t feel anyone should feel any pressure,” he said. “The only people who think we can do this are us and we’ll have to show that on Saturday, won’t we?”

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who has been forced to make two backline changes by injuries to center Ryan Crotty and winger Rieko Ioane, took time from his favorite pastime of bating Cheika to agree with the Australia coach that the Wallabies are still dangerous.

“I’ve been saying for a wee while I think they’re a good side,” Hansen said. “They’re playing the No. 1 side in the world and because they lose to us they’re a poor side? That’s probably naive.

“With a wee bit of luck they could have scored three or four tries (last week). Whist that game looks dominant on the scoreboard, I don’t think it was that dominant on the park itself. I do think they’re improving.”

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