The world has changed since September 6, 1986, when Australia last defeated New Zealand at Eden Park, not least that rugby union was still an amateur sport one year out from its first World Cup. Other historical contexts for that day include the first national broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show in the United States, while you could by an “average” house in Auckland and Sydney for well under $80,000. How times change. Earlier in the year, we saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explode and Mike Tyson become the youngest heavyweight boxing champion in history, we’d had the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl and the identification of “mad cow disease”, and you could still smoke on all forms of public transport. That’s a very different world, but the world’s kept turning and New Zealand since have defeated Australia in 14 consecutive Tests at Eden Park. Hoodoo? What hoodoo?
Ewen McKenzie has named an unchanged Wallabies squad, the first time in his 17-Test tenure that he has ignored the urge to tinker. He has suggested, however, that he will alter the game plan slightly to give the Kiwis something else to consider. Could that feature Israel Folau lining up on the wing at any point, with Pat McCabe at fullback, as the Wallabies looked short of gas out wide in Sydney? It’s worth a thought.
Steve Hansen has made three changes to his starting side from last week, with Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu absent through injury, replaced respectively by Liam Messam and Ryan Crotty, while Conrad Smith returns at outside centre having missed Sydney to attend the birth of his first child. Liam Messam was left out of the squad last week due to fitness concerns, and there remains a slight cloud over the Chiefs back-rower’s well-being.
But the Wallabies head across the Tasman this year buoyed if not buoyant after the 12-12 draw in Sydney, when they dominated territory and possession to do everything but beat the All Blacks for the first time since August 2011. Kiwis will ask, rightly, when did the Wallabies last cross the Ditch without confidence, but at least the Aussies are no longer talking themselves up. And it’s been noticed that Steve Hansen’s barbs this year are pointing at Australian weakness rather than New Zealand strengths.
The result last week was disappointing in many aspects, as it ended the Wallabies’ seven-match winning run as well as the All Blacks’ bid for an 18th consecutive victory, but the match itself was a brutal contest in terrible conditions. The weather killed any hopes we had of a ball-in-hand spectacular, but this week – it’s been bright and sunny, with a dry track highly likely – might be tighter with the All Blacks talking of “going back to basics”; the Wallabies, however, will continue to play with width, as that is the way they’re wired by Ewen McKenzie.
McKenzie has maintained his squad based on form, with a dominance of New South Wales Waratahs and Brumbies players rewarded for excellent seasons. Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale will be key, with the Wallabies captain described by Owen Finegan as a captain whom players follow, just like John Eales, while the playmaker simply has to conjure space for Israel Folau and the wingers out wide.
Aaron Smith was sharp for the All Blacks, making more ground with ball in hand than any other player, and his snipes will keep Australia honest. Conrad Smith has had an excellent season, as ever, and his presence in the backline is key after missing last week. Ben Smith, at fullback, rarely has two quiet games in succession, and New Zealand have not failed to score a try in back-to-back Tests since 1959-1960.
Owen Franks and Wyatt Crockett have something to prove either side of Dane Coles © Getty Images
Out of form
The All Blacks have issues with props Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks. Crocket remains a concern at scrum time, and he conceded another three penalties last week as well as being sin-binned for a breakdown offence. Franks, meanwhile, missed an unfeasible match-high seven tackles. New Zealand need more from them in the set-piece and around the park.
Ruck’n Maul: Wallabies must use bench better
Key area to watch
The breakdown, as always. especially with New Zealand having conceded nine yellow cards in their past 12 Tests and former top referee Jonathan Kaplan suggesting that officials are “finally beginning to understand what needs to be done” to eliminate what he describes as the All Blacks’ “marginal tactics under pressure”.
The Wallabies will also be keen to keep referee Romain Poite sweet, as they have had trouble with him at scrum-time – not least in their third Test destruction by the British & Irish Lions last season.
Australia held New Zealand up front last week, but McKenzie accepts “we can’t afford to have a bad day at the office”.
“You’ve got to build reputation over time. You can trash it overnight, but it takes time to build and [Poite] was on the sideline [for the first Test], so he would have watched it naturally and been probably forming an opinion … you’ve got to make sure you aren’t going backwards. You have got to be able to get parity at least and then you’ve got a platform to play with.”
New Zealand are undefeated by anyone at Eden Park since 1994, when France toppled them. Opta Stats show that Israel Folau beat a match-high five defenders in Sydney last week, as many as the entire New Zealand starting XV managed in total, while New Zealand captain Richie McCaw completed all 20 tackles – at least four more than anybody else.
Hoodoo? What hoodoo? Stats guru Richard Kelly from Opta Sports notes the numbers say the All Blacks are as good as ever, but the eyes have glimpsed something this year that is not quite all good. Wallabies by three points.
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