The Wallabies will attempt to erase a decade of gross disappointment against the All Blacks when the inaugural Rugby Championship begins in Sydney tomorrow.
The new southern hemisphere showpiece adds Argentina to the former Tri Nations roster of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, with the Argentines locking horns with the Springboks at Cape Town on the same day.
The Wallabies will be facing the All Blacks for the first time since their 20-6 defeat in the semi-finals of the World Cup and Australia coach Robbie Deans said the Bledisloe Cup Tests were about prestige and national interest.
“The best way to describe the contest is that it’s the equivalent of the Ashes,” Deans said, referring to the historic cricket clashes between Australia and England. “It’s got a lot of history. It’s something a lot of good players never get to experience or touch. There’s an awful lot of meaning to the playing group.”
The trans-Tasman rivals will play three Tests to decide the Bledisloe trophy.
Winger Adam Ashley-Cooper said the Wallabies were intent on exacting revenge for the World Cup loss and an extended run of failed Bledisloe campaigns since 2002.
“It stings,” Ashley-Cooper said of the World Cup defeat. “But we have a new focus now and that’s the Bledisloe. There’s been a big build-up, a lot of buzz.”
“Not only in camp, but around friends and family and the whole country. I guess that’s off the back of the World Cup last year being such a big tournament, a worldwide tournament, and the opportunity to get a little bit of revenge,” Ashley-Cooper said. “Australia hasn’t held the Bledisloe Cup for more than a decade. Now so that in itself is enough motivation to play the No. 1 team in the world.”
World Cup fly-half Quade Cooper has been omitted from the Wallabies squad in favor of Berrick Barnes. The No. 10 produced consecutive man-of-the-match performances against Wales in June to cement his position.
The formidable All Blacks have added fly-half Dan Carter and centre Ma’a Nonu to the side that thrashed Ireland 60-0 in June.
Veteran forward Nathan Sharpe shelved retirement plans until October to play in the championship and is the only current Australian to have been involved in a successful Bledisloe Cup campaign.
“Sharpey is the only one to have done it so 99 percent of this team really want that same opportunity,” Ashley-Cooper said. “Sharing experiences with guys that have held the Cup, there’s no bigger achievement or triumph, outside of the World Cup, than the Bledisloe Cup.”
Deans paid tribute to Sharpe’s input.
“He’s been a great source of confidence for the group, he’s playing great rugby, but he’s also become a real educator around not only the game, but also the peripheral aspects of the game,” he said.
The All Blacks are chasing the same old result against Australia with a new coach after Steve Hansen replaced the World Cup-winning Graham Henry.
“Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup contest brings two challenges,” Hansen said.
“The first is our opponents, who we clearly respect. But just as important is the second challenge, which is about us being better than we were before,” Hansen said.
Deans applauded the decision to decide the Bledisloe over three Tests in an end to years of the series involving two or four matches.
Australia and New Zealand clash in Auckland on Aug. 25 in the return leg of the Rugby Championship before the final Bledisloe encounter in Brisbane on Oct. 20.
“The good thing now is we have an uneven number of contests,” Deans said. “So we’ll get clear resolution year to year.”
The Rugby Championship is to be staged over the next six weekends. The leading side on the ladder after 12 home-and-away matches will claim the title.