The All Blacks and Wallabies are preparing for a no-holds barred showdown in their Tri-Nations clash being played in Auckland today against the backdrop of the looming World Cup.
The top two teams in the world are both sides coming off solid bonus point wins against a hapless Springboks combination for what Wallabies coach Robbie Deans predicts will be an “epic” battle.
“There will be a lot of rugby played. Neither side is going to walk off the ground without having chanced their arm ... they’ll do that because neither side wants to become second,” he said.
At stake is the Bledisloe Cup, the trophy bitterly contested between the All Blacks and Wallabies annually, as well as the important opportunity to take a psychological advantage into the World Cup, which starts in New Zealand next month.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said he was aware that history shows the All Blacks’ performance in the Tri-Nations “doesn’t count for a lot” at World Cup time, but admitted it was hard not to think ahead.
“We’d love to have a good performance here. The last time in New Zealand before the World Cup and obviously at this stadium there’s a little bit of that and we’re pretty keen to go out and have a good performance,” McCaw said.
Eden Park, also the venue for the World Cup final, is the All Blacks fortress where they have not lost for 17 years. The Wallabies last won there 25 years ago.
The prospect of the two sides meeting again on the park in the World Cup final was also in the All Blacks’ thinking.
“There’s a little bit of that underlying [in the team],” McCaw said. “The Bledisloe’s on the line, so it would be nice if we get a win and be able to hold onto that for another year and if we do the job right hopefully come October if that plays out like that it might help then.”
The All Blacks will be banking on winning the battle for possession with the return of Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn and Kieran Read giving them a near full-strength forward pack.
However, even if the Wallabies are forced to live off scraps of ball they have playmakers including Quade Cooper, Will Genia and Kurtley Beale in the backs who can turn a game at any time.
“In a Test match like this it comes down to one or two opportunities that can dictate what happens for the rest of the game,” McCaw said. “They certainly showed against the South Africans two weeks ago that they can give it a crack and they scored and they scored straight away again. They are a team that can do that to you.”
In an innovative move, powerhouse Wallabies wing Digby Ioane has been charged with defending the inside channel, taking the heat off Cooper who is not known for his defense, but who will have a free rein to focus on his potent attacking game.
“There’s no point in picking blokes like that and then trying to shackle them,” Deans said of Cooper.
With both sides promising running rugby, Genia said the Wallabies would also have to be accurate when kicking to foil the All Blacks counter-attack opportunities.