Old rivals primed for make-or-break clash
August 21, 2009
Australia's Lachie Turner is wrapped up by the New Zealand defence during their clash in Auckland last month © Getty Images
Australia and New Zealand lock horns in Sydney on Saturday night with their Tri-Nations hopes hanging by a thread.
The trans-Tasman rivals have been left in South Africa's wake in the first half of the season and as result it is a case of win-or-bust for both sides at the ANZ Stadium in a clash that could also be a Bledisloe Cup decider following the All Blacks' victory over the Wallabies in Auckland last month.
The visitors surely have the psychological advantage having won 10 of the past 12 matches between the sides but the hosts will take heart from a return to home soil and particularly Sydney where they have won three of the past four battles - most notably last year's 34-19 victory in Kiwi coach Robbie Deans' first meeting against his previous employers.
While victory would provide a much-needed boost to both sides after less-than-impressive starts to the season the ramifications for the losers would arguably be more significant. The All Blacks have not lost three Test matches in a row since their nightmare year of 1998 and another defeat - after back-to-back losses in South Africa - would heap pressure on coach Graham Henry and his assistants Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, just a few weeks after they were handed contract extensions up to and including Rugby World Cup 2011.
However, if they win they will be back in the hunt for their fifth successive Tri-Nations title and will also be able to lock the Bledisloe Cup away for another year with two matches spare. In that scenario, the microscope will then fall on Deans and his players, who despite many plaudits for the way they are trying to play, have failed to make that tell where it counts most - on the scoreboard.
Both sides will welcome the timely return of key personnel in the form of All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter and Wallabies flanker Rocky Elsom with both more than able to provide a telling and match-winning contribution.
The inspirational Carter has already been working some magic off the field and with some Air NZ Cup rugby under his belt since recovering from his Achilles injury he has an advantage over Elsom, who returns from a knee injury, in terms of game time.
Carter will line up alongside Luke McAlister for the first time since the All Blacks' painful exit from Rugby World Cup 2007 and the duo will be determined more than most to erase that memory. It is somewhat of a gamble by Henry with McAlister struggling for form and his star man still shaking off the rust but obviously one he is willing to take after the lows of South Africa.
Centre Ma'a Nonu and No.8 Rodney So'oialo felt the selectors' axe this week while Henry's faith in winger Joe Rokocoko has also divided opinion - but his five tries in his previous 12 appearance against the Wallabies obviously holds some sway with his coach.
The return of the equally influential Elsom for his first appearance in the green and gold since the deciding game of last year's Tri-Nations in Brisbane is also a huge factor. There is little doubt he will add a dynamic element to the Wallabies' efforts and be a key leadership figure.
As expected the 26-year-old was swiftly drafted in by Deans after finally shaking off his injury woes but the Wallabies coach has resisted wholesale changes in the face two straight defeats. Injury has stripped him of captain Stirling Mortlock but he has the experienced head of flanker George Smith to fill the void.
The industrious Adam Ashley-Cooper moves from fullback to centre which allows the exciting 19-year-old James O'Connor to make his first start in a Bledisloe Cup Test. O'Connor continues to grow in confidence and excelled at fullback having come off the bench in his last outing and will definitely be one to watch.
We can expect both sides to leave little, if anything; in their respective lockers but whether that means an expansive running game as opposed to the kick-dominated offerings we have been served so far in this year's Tri-Nations only time will tell.
South Africa's fondness for the kick and chase has proved profitable in recent weeks and allied with their physical prowess has lifted them to the top of the world. Australia and New Zealand have questioned the Boks' approach but if anything they should perhaps be more concerned about their own ability under the high-ball. We would all like to see matches lit up by a feast of fast, running rugby but as we know this is a results business and as long as they are not cheating then they cannot be questioned.
To be fair, both Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand have endeavoured to throw the ball around but with the boots of Carter and McAlister, and their Wallabies counterparts Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes on show this weekend then the ball is set to see plenty of air.
The pressure to deliver is set to be the most telling factor in the latest episode of this long-running rivalry and it would appear that it is the All Blacks who have the most to lose - but question marks remain as to whether that will be enough.
Big games call for big names and big performances so don't be surprised if either Carter or Elsom hog the headlines but with so much at stake the neutral fan is set to be the biggest winner.
Australia: James O'Connor (Western Force), Lachie Turner (NSW Waratahs), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies), Berrick Barnes (Queensland Reds), Drew Mitchell (Western Force), Matt Giteau (Western Force), Luke Burgess (NSW Waratahs), Richard Brown (Western Force), George Smith (Brumbies, captain), Rocky Elsom (Brumbies), Nathan Sharpe (Western Force), James Horwill (Queensland Reds), Al Baxter (NSW Waratahs), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs)
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau (NSW Waratahs), Ben Alexander (Brumbies), Dean Mumm (NSW Waratahs), David Pocock (Western Force), Will Genia (Queensland Reds), Ryan Cross (Western Force), Peter Hynes (Queensland Reds)
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina (Chiefs), Joe Rokocoko (Blues), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), Luke McAlister (Blues), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Chiefs), Daniel Carter (Crusaders), Jimmy Cowan (Crusaders), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Richie McCaw (Crusaders, captain), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Isaac Ross (Canterbury), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Owen Franks (Canterbury), Andrew Hore (Hurricanes), Tony Woodcock (Blues).
Replacements: Aled de Malmanche (Chiefs), John Afoa (Blues), Jason Eaton (Hurricanes), Rodney So'oialo (Hurricanes), Brendon Leonard (Chiefs), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Ma'a Nonu (Hurricanes).
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Cobus Wessels (South Africa)