Struggling All Blacks face Bledisloe trial against Australia
The All Blacks will face the Wallabies in the second Bledisloe Cup test on Saturday at Auckland under immense pressure to do the one thing they have done most often throughout their history: win.
New Zealand has won 1,061 of 1,261, or 84%, of the tests it has played since its first in 1905, has won 114 of its 165 test against Australia and has won its last 18 tests against the Wallabies at Saturday’s match venue in a streak stretching 33 years.
But a single loss on Saturday could have dire consequences for the reigning world champions. New Zealand would lose the Bledisloe Cup to Australia for the first time in 17 years, could drop to sixth on world rankings after occupying the top spot since the ranking system was devised and will increase concern among fans about its readiness to defend the World Cup from next month.
There are fears already the All Blacks are treading a similar path to the one they followed before their disastrous 1991 World Cup campaign.
New Zealand won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and was hotly favored to defend the trophy in Britain four years later but made the mistake of keeping together most of the 1987 team whose form, by 1991, had declined. The current All Blacks team is also weaker than the one that won the World Cup for the third time in 2015 with key players ageing and out of form.
Head coach Steve Hansen has been forced to drop his most-experienced front row forward, 108-test prop Owen Franks, and his most-experienced outside back, 77-test winger and fullback Ben Smith from his lineup for Saturday’s test in Auckland. While he says the omissions were part of a selection plan hatched prior to last weekend’s record-breaking 47-26 loss to Australia in the first test of the Bledisloe series, it is more likely they are a reaction to that defeat.
The comprehensive loss to Australia in Perth has been a long time coming but its imminence was clear in the All Blacks’ poor recent form. The Wallabies lost a record nine of 14 tests last season but have begun to find selection stability and are growing in confidence as the World Cup nears.
The All Blacks, in contrast, continue to struggle to physically dominate opponents or to circumvent rush defenses which have all but shut down the creative freedom of their back play.
The problems are systemic and the remedies likely too broad-based to be implemented in the short time remaining before the World Cup. But they need to start with a convincing performance on Saturday to have any confidence in their World Cup campaign.
Hansen is bullish about their chances.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “This is the best challenge we could get prior to going to a World Cup. We’re going to get asked some questions about ourselves. We didn’t front up last week; we need to front up this week or (the trophy) will be going back to Australia.”
The short-term solution to New Zealand’s problems may be to go back to basics.
The All Blacks have to solidify their set pieces, especially their scrum, to give them a stable platform of possession. They then need tight and loose forwards to carry the ball with purpose to bend the defense and get them over the gain line.
Only with ball won quickly and on the front foot can they hope to stimulate the attacking game which has calcified in recent seasons as they have played with little possession and on the back pedal.