You can take your pick of ways to build up this weekend’s clash in Auckland between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. It is of course a Bledisloe Cup decider, for if the home side wins, they retain it. It’s also a matchup which could go a long way to deciding the destination of this year’s TriNations title.
But I’d prefer to see it as a battle between the top two-ranked sides in the world, one that many feel could be replicated in the World Cup Final in the very same Eden Park stadium on October 23. Of course, Declan Kidney’s Irish squad are hoping they can put a dent in that particular master plan!
Ironically although the Aussies dispatched the disinterested Springboks by a lesser margin than their New Zealand counterparts in recent weeks, they have named an unchanged starting XV, which makes you wonder if coach Robbie Deans feels he’s close to finding his starting line up for the World Cup.
The Wallaby squad would have been pleased to hear Berrick Barnes announce his return to availability and Matt Giteau still waits in the wings, yet their current centre pairing of Pat McCabe and Adam Ashley-Cooper were very impressive against South Africa, especially on the defensive side of things.
They won’t get a bigger test than this weekend, however, with Nonu and Smith (partnering each other in the centre for an All Black record 29th time) running at them at full pace, not to a certain Sonny Bill Williams ready to spring from the bench.
But the Australians have shown in recent times that they are fast closing the gap that has grown between them and their cross-Tasman neighbours over the years. James O’Connor’s last-gasp conversion in Hong Kong got their first win against them in around two years, and of course there were key players from both teams involved in this year’s SupeRugby final.
If they are to turn their great rivals over in Auckland, they will no doubt have to rely on a flash of brilliance or two from none other than Quade Cooper who will be facing his biggest test of 2011 on Saturday.
Graham Henry, unlike his counterpart, is taking the opportunity to tinker more with his side, making seven changes in all to last week. Most notable from where I’m standing is on both wings, where Gear and Sivivatu come on to replace Guildford and Jane who helped themselves to four tries between them last Saturday. And indeed they have their work cut out against the Wallabies as their opposite numbers O’Connor and Ioane both impressed in the tackle in their last outing.
There are also several changes in the scrum, such as Keven Mealamu returning to hooking duties and Brad Thorn back in at lock.
Personally, I think the battle of the scrumhalves could be key on the day. Piri Weepu will fancy his chances of beating Jimmy Cowan to the All Black starting berth at the World Cup, and he’ll go a long way towards achieving that should he get the better of Will Genia. Quick thinking from rucks and mauls will be vital especially with such quality 7s as McCaw and Pocock on the pitch.
Overall I think that despite the far more important tournament which lies down the road, these two will be going at it with the normal intensity that their rivalry demands. And though it is likely to remain tight going into the final quarter, home advantage will probably win out though I expect Rock Elsom’s men to just about cling on to what could prove a vital losing bonus point.
Meanwhile the Springboks have a week off to lick their wounds and prepare for their brace of home matches to come. Speaking before a parliamentary committee the other day, coach Peter de Villiers claimed he “deserved a medal” for his efforts with his squad so far in his tenure. I have a funny feeling that if results don’t improve soon the fans down there might feel he deserves something a lot less honourable!
So be sure and catch the TriNations action this weekend if you can, kickoff in Eden Park is 8:30am our time. What better way to set up what should be a fascinating day’s rugby as the northern hemisphere countries begin their World Cup warm ups. Enjoy it wherever you are and I’ll see you back here next week as I preview South Africa v Australia. JLP
You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/
Remeber the dramatic finish to last year’s game?
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