Preview: All Blacks V Wallabies - Bledisloe in Tokyo
For the second consecutive year the fabled clash comes to Asia, and as it was last year, the Wallabies arrive under pressure. Although the All Blacks have not had a vintage season, well, if you are only as good as your last game...
In 2008 the All Blacks in the corresponding fixture in Hong Kong were coming off a ninth Tri Nation’s title, and would go onto record a Grand Slam in what was an outstanding riposte to the horrors of the previous year’s World Cup.
While this year has seen them record one of their less impressive ledgers, having their colours lowered twice at home and losing three straight to South Africa, they have maintained their vice grip over the Wallabies.
In their last match, where New Zealand won 33-6, the expected game from the All Blacks eventuated for the first time in nine matches in 2009.
Brilliant defence, outstanding play in the ruck and a patient all round game came largely thanks to the restoration of players that were missing in the early stages of their season, namely the All Blacks twin deities, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
While there is a mixed feeling around New Zealand with their team, the grim satisfaction that both the All Black camp and the general public took from their last performance indicated that after a mediocre campaign, things may well be on the up.
An impressive Air New Zealand Cup has helped, buttressed with the addition of All Blacks to their provinces.
Certainly as they head to Europe, where they have lost just once in 17 matches under Graham Henry, the hope is that this All Black team has gone through the necessary pain to be able to evolve in time for the critical 2011 home World Cup attack.
However, any feelings of “we’re moving forward” or “things are on the up” and all related clichés of improvement sound very hollow coming from the Wallabies at the moment.
Off the field, it has been close to a disaster, with the game lurching from one problem to another with the Tuqiri-gate scandal, the infighting in Melbourne with the Super 15 franchise, and rumours that senior Wallabies such as Matt Giteau and George Smith are unhappy.
Beyond this though, all sporting codes can ultimately rely on some form of rude health if their flagship product is generating the goods.
It isn’t complicated. The goods are wins.
After looking like the most beautiful green and gold machine during the home test series against the Barbarians, Italy and France, the wheels have fallen off the Wallaby structure in a big way.
A deserved wooden spoon in the Tri Nations and five losses had only one positive to tick off, and that was a 21-6 win over the Springboks in Brisbane.
But when thinking of a good team, or a potential champion team, the things that spring to mind are consistency, the ability to back it up, and building on the previous platforms.
So based on what happened in the destruction in Wellington, could we in fact be witnessing a poor Australian team?
Typically, the Wallabies like to use the All Blacks as the ultimate measuring stick, having played them more than any other side. While New Zealand haven’t been great themselves, the Australians seemed to do them a huge favour at Westpac trust and play them into imposing form.
Sitting on a six match losing streak against the All Blacks, the Wallabies need to man up fast.
With close to ten ruck turnovers per game this year against New Zealand, and barely two thirds of the rucks that the All Blacks control (in Wellington it was 110 to 50), it all starts and finishes in the all important tackle contest.
While other areas of the All Blacks game may have stuttered, their defence is statistically the best in the world, and this combined with dominance over the Wallabies at the ruck, is all but guaranteeing the men in black Australian scalps.
The Wallabies team, with the exception of the last minute loss of Berrick Barnes, look good on paper, especially with the twin Queensland wing combination of the outstanding Digby Ioane and Peter Hynes.
If the powerful back row of Wycliff Palu, David Pocock and new captain Rocky Elsom can fire, then the Australians are at the very least a 50/50 chance. Much depends on the entire pack’s willingness to get down and dirty with the All Blacks, rather than standing out in the backline.
Here, the All Blacks can be challenged, but their historical strength lies in their forwards operating as a cohesive unit as they did in Wellington. While some may label the returning Rodney So’oialo as a potential weak link, the simple truth is that the Wellington number eight will play this game as if his life depended on it.
In the backs, for all of the Australian’s class, New Zealand has a more potent and more experienced backline.
Matt Giteau, despite being the John Eales medallist for best Australian player, isn’t in the class of Dan Carter, and with the Wallabies now having a makeshift midfield; the Wellington combination of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu should be too strong.
Finally, the mental baggage will probably be too much.
Not only do the Wallabies sit on a terrible overall record (winning 39 of 135) and a shocking recent run against Graham Henry (winning 3 of 16), but one suspects that for all of Dean’s qualities, perhaps a former All Black isn’t the best man to try and help Australia overcome what has become a very black piece of mental baggage.
Date: Saturday, October 31
Venue: National Stadium, Tokyo, Japan
Kick-off: 17.35 local (08.35 GMT, 21:35 NZT)
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa), Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, Taizo Hirabayashi (Japan), TMO: Akihisa Aso (Japan)
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock. Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 John Afoa, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Tamati Ellison.
Australia - revised: 15 James O'Connor, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Will Genia, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (captain), 5 Mark Chisholm, 4 James Horwill, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson. Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 George Smith, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Drew Mitchell, 22 TBC.