The All Blacks go into their clash with the Wallabies in Dunedin today as overwhelming favorites despite losing influential captain Richie McCaw and enterprising wing Cory Jane on the eve of the Test.
The double injury blow forced a late reshuffle for the reigning world champions, including the promotion of utility back Charles Piutau to the starting side for the first time.
However, the odds remain heavily in the All Blacks’ favor after they disposed of the Wallabies twice already this year — winning 47-29 in Sydney and then 27-16 in Wellington as they sailed through the Rugby Championship unbeaten.
New Zealand betting agency TAB kept the All Blacks at a shade over even money, while the Wallabies were at 6-1 after it was announced yesterday that McCaw was ruled out with a tight calf and Jane had tweaked a hamstring.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said McCaw’s injury was not serious.
“We could have played him, but the risk and reward wasn’t worth it so we haven’t,” he said.
“C.J. [Jane] has obviously done a grade one hamstring near the end of training. We thought he may be OK in the morning, but he pulled up no good,” Hansen added.
Wallabies captain James Horwill believes the loss of McCaw will have little impact on the All Blacks.
“Obviously the experience of Richie is a loss for any team, 120 Tests, it’s hard to replicate that experience, but Sam Cane’s been doing a great job,” Horwill said, referring to the man replacing the New Zealand veteran.
With nothing at stake in the match — the All Blacks are 2-0 up in the best-of-three Bledisloe Cup Tests between the trans-Tasman rivals — both sides have preached the same message of needing to back up their last performance.
The All Blacks are looking to reproduce the form that saw them beat South Africa 38-27 two weeks ago to claim the Rugby Championship with a performance dubbed by the New Zealand media “as one of the all-time greats.”
Australia, after a woeful year, want a repeat of the form they showed when trouncing Argentina 54-17 in a match to avoid the Rugby Championship wooden spoon.
If the All Blacks offer the Wallabies an area to exploit it would be out wide, with the raw paring of Piutau and Ben Smith.
Smith’s reputation as a try-scoring wing will count for little as he moves in one place to the more defensive center role in place of Conrad Smith, who is taking an extended break from the game.
Piutau, although rated as a utility, has established his reputation as a counterattacking fullback.
The loss of three-time world player of the year McCaw sees the elevation of Cane, who has already shown this year he is a capable openside flanker at Test level.
A target for the All Blacks, apart from maintaining their unbeaten record this year, is to win their 30th consecutive Test on home soil, while the Wallabies have to go back 12 years to when they last beat the All Blacks in New Zealand.
The last of their rare victories anywhere over the All Blacks was 25-20 in Brisbane two years ago and Rob Simmons, Horwill’s locking partner, believes it is time for a change.
“I get filthy, I hate losing. They’re a good team, but you get pretty down. It’s something I want to change, that’s for sure,” he said.
In the 2011 win, center pairing Will Genia and Quade Cooper played an instrumental role in steering the side around the park and they will need to recapture that form for the Wallabies to have a realistic chance.