It is the match Robbie Deans has been building to as his Australia team attempt to prolong New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup misery in today’s semi-final — a fixture opposing coach Graham Henry reckons is his side’s “biggest in 10 years.”
Ever since his appointment in 2008 after losing out on the All Blacks’ coaching job to Henry, Kiwi Deans has been shaping Australia into a potent attacking force, as witnessed by their first Tri-Nations title in a decade this year.
Now the Wallabies face their moment of truth at the All Blacks’ Eden Park fortress against injury-ravaged New Zealand, who are desperate to end a run of 24 years without winning the World Cup.
Australia have gone 12 internationals since they last tasted success at Eden Park in 1986 and no other visiting team have won there since France in 1994.
The Wallabies unraveled under the All Blacks pressure during their last game in Auckland this year, losing 30-14, but made amends by outplaying New Zealand in the Tri-Nations decider to win 25-20 in Brisbane three weeks later.
However, a World Cup-ending groin injuries to both star flyhalf Dan Carter and stand-in Colin Slade, leaving novice Aaron Cruden in the key position, combined with concern over the fitness of inspirational All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, have left this rugby-obsessed nation on edge.
Deans, who as a coach has won only three of his 14 encounters against Henry’s All Blacks, is expecting a monumental battle with New Zealand.
“I feel it [injuries] will make them tougher and I firmly believe that because it galvanizes them as a team and that is what rugby is all about,” Deans said.
“All of these blokes are experienced at this level,” the former All Black added. “They’ll be very, very good.”
Australia suffered a setback yesterday when fullback Kurtley Beale was ruled out with a hamstring strain.
However, the Wallabies were clearly prepared for losing the exciting runner after bracketing Adam Ashley-Cooper, who will now take over at fullback, alongside him in Friday’s team announcement.
“We always anticipated it would be unlikely that Kurtley would be ready, but we wanted to give him every opportunity to make it,” Deans said.
Beale’s absence means Australia will rely even more on the mercurial skills of playmaker Quade Cooper to unlock the All Blacks’ defense and send the two-time champions Wallabies into their fourth final the following weekend.
New Zealand-born Cooper has been cast as the villain since coming “home” for his on-field skirmishes with McCaw and was off his game in Australia’s backs-to-the wall 11-9 quarter-final win over defending champions South Africa.
However, center Ma’a Nonu was one All Black not selling Cooper short, even in the seething cauldron of 60,000 booing Kiwi fans.
“With all the talk about him not having a good World Cup and all the emphasis on Quade, everyone bagging [criticizing] him, I think he’s going to be desperate and at the same time he’s going to be dangerous,” Nonu said. “He wants to prove a lot of people wrong.”
New Zealand lost both the 1991 and 2003 World Cup semi-finals to Australia, but Deans knows it will take a supreme performance for his Wallabies to make it through this year.
“We’ll have to trust ourselves and back our systems as well as hang tough when the traffic starts coming the other way,” Deans said.
The pressure is also squarely on Henry, bidding to bring home the Webb Ellis Cup after overseeing the All Blacks’ shattering quarter-final defeat by France at the 2007 tournament.
“It’s probably the biggest game these guys have played in 10 years,” Henry said.
“It happens to be Australia, they’re a big brother to us in many ways and it’s a positive relationship, it brings the best out of New Zealanders,” he added. “We know them, they know us well, there’s a lot rivalry, but I don’t think it’s any different from playing anyone else in a Rugby World Cup semi-final, you’ve just got to do the business.”
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