All Blacks, Wallabies primed for Bledisloe battle
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Australia has the chance to prise one trophy from New Zealand’s grasp and to severely weaken its hold on another when the teams meet in the return Bledisloe Cup test in Auckland on Saturday.
A 27-19 victory over the All Blacks in Sydney last weekend gave the Wallabies the Rugby Championship title, which New Zealand had held for the last two years. It also gave them a 1-0 lead in the two-match Bledisloe Cup series, giving Australia the chance to reclaim that trophy which has been in New Zealand’s possession since 2003.
To do so, the Australians will have to beat the All Blacks on Eden Park for the first time since 1986 and end New Zealand’s 37-test unbeaten run on home soil. The All Blacks are unbeaten against all-comers at Eden Park in 34 tests since 1994.
The Wallabies will also have to beat the All Blacks in back-to-back tests for the first time since 2001. It’s an immense challenge for the Wallabies, but the rewards would be great.
Winning both the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup would send the third-ranked Wallabies into the World Cup, at which they are drawn with England and Wales in the toughest group, with a surge of confidence.
At the same time, Australia has the chance to deal a significant blow to New Zealand’s confidence and undermine the All Blacks’ preparation for the defense of the World Cup, which starts in Britain in just over a month.
The All Blacks lost to Australia in their last test before the 2011 World Cup and went on to win the world tournament for the first time in 24 years. But a double defeat would be a major setback for team aiming to be the first to successfully defend the World Cup title.
At least, it would cast doubt on the soundness of its selection and preparation for the world tournament.
Coach Steve Hansen and his selectors have faced the challenge in matches against Samoa, Australia, South Africa and Argentina of both giving game time to leading players and allowing fringe players to prove themselves worthy of making the 31-man squad.
The All Blacks are haunted by the memory of the 1991 World Cup campaign. After winning the World Cup in 1987, New Zealand tried to keep together a successful team and found at the World Cup that several key players were past their peak.
It is unlikely they will repeat the error under Hansen, but there was evidence in last weekend’s loss that some top players are struggling to reach their best form. The most obvious example was veteran flyhalf Dan Carter, now 33, who lacked his usual accuracy and decisiveness.
If Carter fails again on Saturday, the All Blacks selectors may have to reassess their faith in him to lead New Zealand’s coming campaign.
Hansen made only three changes to his lineup in a typically sober response to a defeat. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika made six changes to his winning lineup, most notably giving Quade Cooper a start at flyhalf.
Cooper has a poor record against the All Blacks and in New Zealand but Cheika said he would not shy away from the need to see him play before the World Cup.
“I believe in him a lot as a person and a player,” Cheika said. “I don’t think it’s fair to anyone if I don’t pick a player because of where we’re playing. That would be a weakness from me if I was scared of that.”
Hansen has also taken chances, especially in sticking with Carter and the front row that played so poorly in Sydney. He said it was necessary to stick to a selection blueprint in the All Blacks’ five matches ahead of the World Cup and not to be swayed a loss.
“These are the only test matches we get to ascertain where everyone is at,” Hansen said. “You’ve got to be brave. We’ve got a plan and whilst we hit a road bump last week we don’t need to panic.”