The All Blacks' bid to seal the Tri-Nations rugby series against the Wallabies was thrown into disarray on the eve of today's Test with backline general Aaron Mauger forced out through injury.
Mauger's withdrawal forced the All Blacks to cobble together the rookie pairing of Luke McAlister and Isaia Toeava to hold back blockbusting Wallabies Stirling Mortlock and Matt Giteau in the centers.
New Zealand were firm favorites to win the Test and wrap up the championship with two matches to spare, given their two-from-two victories over Australia so far this year and the Wallabies' abysmal away record.
A win in Auckland would complete a 3-0 whitewash and inflict a psychological blow a year ahead of the World Cup.
With the All Blacks clearly superior in the scrums and Richie McCaw unchallenged at the breakdown, they have been able to bank on a wealth of possession despite their well-documented lineout woes. This in turn has allowed flyhalf Daniel Carter to launch attacks from all corners of the field, knowing he had seasoned performers outside him.
With fine weather forecast and both sides planning for an expansive game it was assured that much of the play would center around the midfield.
Coach Graham Henry was so confident that he reshuffled his backline to blood the promising Toeava in the high-pressure area, but that was when he thought the 36-Test veteran Mauger would be there to guide the 20-year-old.
Henry even conceded that had the All Blacks not been so dominant early in the series it was "a 50-50" call whether Toeava would have been picked.
But Mauger's groin injury leaves the All Blacks well short of experience, with McAlister and Toeava having just 11 Test caps between them.