Eighteen years of Bledisloe Cup dominance on the line

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Players have constantly had to adapt to the demands of Covid-19, and it has placed extra emphasis on the Bledisloe Cup with the first two Tests scheduled for Eden Park.

To have any chance of claiming the prize for the first time since 2002, the Australians have to win one of the two Tests in Auckland, where they haven't won since 1986, to keep the series alive.

Fuelling the All Blacks will be their desire to retain the prize they rank second only to the Rugby World Cup, while also acknowledging the 100th Test played by halfback Aaron Smith.

"He's got great drive, and it's driven on and off the park. His position is one that demands a high aerobic base," he said.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster said Smith's skills had influenced the way rugby was played.

Whether anyone had been more influential in shaping the game, he felt there were one or two others. Was he the most influential in the last decade? He said he would leave that to others to decide.

But the evidence is there in the way New Zealand sides have consistently scored more tries in internationals in the decade Smith has been playing than any other Test side.

It was an era when the All Blacks joined a near-decade run as the No1 team in the world.

Smith's play since his debut in 2012 was central to that.

Speed in getting to the base of rucks, his speed of pass from that base and, in support, all contributed to his worth.

That was clear from the all-important time he provided for his outsides to get through, or around, defences consistently.  Most importantly, it allowed first five-eighths like Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo'unga extra time to make decisions for the benefit of the side.

Australia would be a physical, ruck-and-run team who have said they want to dominate the All Blacks up-front that was much the same as they had been in recent times.

Their three close Tests against France had been good for them, and they would have achieved some objectives in that series.

"Both teams know each other pretty well so I don't think will be major surprises on either side about how to play. It's the application of what you want to do on the day that really matters," he said.

Foster was happy with where the All Blacks were heading into the second phase of their season.

"We've got a squad that has worked really hard. The strength of the squad at the moment is they are working for each other and I think we've developed some good options, and good depth through July," he said.

The loose forwards were an example of that with several players asking questions of the selectors. The midfield and the back three were others. They were provoking good debates among the selectors.

Dalton Papalii got the choice at openside flanker, and that was down to the form he showed in Super Rugby where Foster said he was the form player.

"He played well in the first Test [against Tonga]. He then had a niggle which meant we had to take him out for two weeks. He's training well and think he's earned his chance," he said.

No8 Ardie Savea had a game on the openside when he came back from injury and performed well. Now he had a chance to play in the position he had served the team most and where he had a greater opportunity to influence the game.

Rieko Ioane will play on the left-wing. Ioane had performed well both at centre and wing during the July series. Foster said he was as sharp as he had ever seen him.

"He had a calf that impacted on him in 2019 – that slowed him down a little bit. I think he came back in 2020 and this year he is looking, like I said, as sharp as ever, and also confident," he said.

His confidence had grown at centre, and while the debate would continue about his best position, the selectors were happy with him in both roles, he said.

Damian McKenzie had been preferred at fullback because he was playing well. His decision-making was strong, he was feeling good about his game, running fast, and Foster felt that was enough for him to warrant the position.

Lock Brodie Retallick had shown significant improvement since rejoining the side after his stint in Japan, and that was clear during their Christchurch camp last week, and Foster said he was jumping out of his skin and ready for Saturday.

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