All Blacks close in on Tri-Nations crown
August 5, 2010
Will New Zealand's Richie McCaw be walking off with the Bledisloe Cup on Saturday? © Getty Images
New Zealand are out to complete their march to Tri-Nations glory against an under-fire Australia in Christchurch on Saturday night.
The All Blacks enter the clash riding an impressive wave of form that has seen them sweep the Springboks aside in two matches and most recently burst the Wallabies' bubble with an emphatic 49-28 win in Melbourne last weekend. Those three bonus point victories leave them in control of this year's battle for southern hemisphere supremacy and another five-point win, with the Wallabies missing out on any bonus points, at the AMI Stadium would not only see them reclaim the title they have dominated since its inception but also maintain their grip on the sizeable Bledisloe Cup silverware for at least another year.
New Zealand ran Australia ragged last Saturday in a game that was once again dominated by the referee, with Wallabies winger Drew Mitchell seeing red during a rollercoaster encounter which produced an incredible 10 tries. But the debate surrounding the performance of the officials could not overshadow another compelling display from the All Blacks, whose expansive approach and counter-attacking prowess proved too much for the hosts, who themselves had shown plenty of promise in their opening victory over the Springboks.
The lung-busting nature of the All Blacks' gameplan and their execution at the breakdown propelled them to a deserved victory but their precision at each restart - an often overlooked element of the game - was equally pivotal and underlined their class. While coach Graham Henry's main concern this week has been how to add a bit more polish to what is a well-oiled machine, the Wallabies have required substantially more attention just a week or so after apparently finding their own magical, and more importantly match-winning, blend of power and pace.
Peppered by a relentless All Blacks side, the Wallabies' defence gave up too much ground and did so far too easily at the Etihad Stadium. They failed to put New Zealand under any significant pressure, despite stealing a march on them with an early try, and were made to pay for their own inaccuracy and failure to retain the ball. The absence of suspended playmaker Quade Cooper may have hampered their creative output but even he would have been hard-pressed to change a game without the ball.
Wallabies boss Robbie Deans will again be without Cooper as he returns to the town where he made his name as coach of an era-defining Crusaders Super Rugby franchise. Matt Giteau retains the No.10 shirt and will be charged with sparking the Wallabies' backline back into life as they attempt to snap an eight-game losing streak against the All Blacks. Elsewhere, Mitchell retains his place in the side while fullback Kurtley Beale and the Faingaa twins, centre Anthony and hooker Saia, have all been promoted into the starting XV.
Adam Ashley-Cooper moves from fullback to centre to form a new-look and more physical midfield pairing with Faingaa as they try to shackle their hosts. The injured Rob Horne and dropped Berrick Barnes make way as Deans is happy to play the long game with next year's Rugby World Cup very much his focus. Skipper Rocky Elsom continues at blindside with Western Force duo David Pocock and Richard Brown completing a back-row that was second best to their Kiwi counterparts in Melbourne.
Henry has given his charges the chance to hammer home their superiority with just one enforced change seeing Piri Weepu replacing the injured Jimmy Cowan at scrum-half. Weepu's uncapped Wellington team-mate Alby Mathewson claims a place on the bench as the reserve No.9 while utility back Benson Stanley replaces Israel Dagg among the replacements in the only other change to the 22.
And in a season of landmarks, which most recently saw Joe Rokocoko become the All Blacks' most-capped winger, centre Ma'a Nonu will notch his 50th Test cap while prop Tony Woodcock is due for his 67th, becoming the most-capped prop in All Blacks history.
The usually-assured Jonathan Kaplan will be the man trying to ensure the recent Tri-Nations trend of eye-catching spectacles continues, while doing his best to bring an end to the more alarming trend of referees sharing the headlines and commanding column inches.
Victory in Christchurch would see New Zealand equal their longest-ever winning streak over Australia, a nine-match sequence achieved across the 1930s and '40s but neither side has much time for history with the future - and specifically next year's World Cup - a more pressing concern.
Another rugby lesson from the All Blacks would see them home with two games to spare, making the historic trip to the new National Stadium in Johannesburg and the scheduled visit to Sydney later this month more of an extended victory parade. To prevent that, the Wallabies must conjure a swift turnaround in form to keep their own narrow hopes of Tri-Nations glory alive and ensure a happy homecoming for Deans.
New Zealand: M Muliaina (Chiefs), C Jane (Hurricanes), C Smith (Hurricanes), M Nonu (Hurricanes), J Rokocoko (Blues), D Carter (Crusaders), P Weepu (Hurricanes), T Woodcock (Blues), K Mealamu (Blues), O Franks (Crusaders), Brad T (Crusaders), T Donnelly (Highlanders), J Kaino (Blues), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), K Read (Crusaders)
Replacements: C Flynn (Crusaders), B Franks (Crusaders), S Whitelock (Crusaders), V Vito (Hurricanes), A Mathewson (Blues), A Cruden (Hurricanes), B Stanley (Blues)
Australia: K Beale (Waratahs); J O'Connor (Western Force), A Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies), A Faingaa (Reds), D Mitchell (Waratahs); M Giteau (Brumbies), W Genia; B Robinson (Waratahs), S Faingaa (Reds), S Ma'afu (Brumbies), D Mumm (Waratahs), N Sharpe (Western Force), R Elsom (Brumbies, capt), D Pocock (Western Force), R Brown (Western Force)
Replacements: S Moore (Brumbies), J Slipper (Reds), R Simmons (Reds), M Hodgson (Western Force), L Burgess (Waratahs), B Barnes (Waratahs), C Shepherd (Western Force)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (RSA)
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert (RSA), Keith Brown (NZ)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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