NEW Zealand’s hopes of a world record dissolved in the Sydney rain last week but retaining the Bledisloe Cup remains a major motivating factor for the All Blacks ahead of the return match against Australia tomorrow.
Lose their second Rugby Championship encounter at their Eden Park fortress and the Wallabies will only need to draw in the third Bledisloe Test in October to regain the symbol of trans-Tasman superiority, which they have not held since 2003.
Win, and the cup returns to the New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters and a trophy cabinet that has had the women’s World Cup and Commonwealth Games men’s sevens titles taken out, dusted off and sent elsewhere in the last month.
Such is the reverence with which the All Blacks hold the cup – the largest sporting trophy in world rugby which reportedly holds the equivalent of 34 cans of beer – they consider it second only to the World Cup on their list of priorities.
Steve Hansen, however, has told his players they are in danger of losing it if they do not improve on their performance in last Saturday’s 12-12 draw.
“We didn’t play well enough,” the New Zealand coach said yesterday.
“So we have to be honest about that and if we want to retain the Bledisloe Cup we have to go up ten or 12 notches and get into it.
“We have had an honest review and people in this group have been honest for quite some time, so when we don’t play well people put their hands up, go about working on it and improving and we expect that to happen at the weekend.”
The All Blacks were under intense pressure for much of last week’s game, made too many errors in execution and lacked the intensity required to subdue an improving Wallabies pack.
The result ended their winning streak at 17, a top-tier record they now still share with the 1965-69 All Blacks and 1997-98 Springboks. Hansen has rarely responded to lacklustre performances with wholesale changes, often challenging his players to rectify their errors the following week.
As such, his changes for tomorrow’s match have principally been injury-enforced.
Ryan Crotty will make his first Test start at inside centre in place of the injured Ma’a Nonu, while Conrad Smith returns at outside centre after pulling out of last week’s match to attend the birth of his first child.
Liam Messam starts at blindside flanker in place of the injured Jerome Kaino, who will be out for up to six weeks with an elbow problem. Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie also resisted the urge to tinker with his side, retaining the same 23-man squad that pushed the All Blacks to the brink last week.
His gamble to give Kurtley Beale the starting stand-off role did not quite pay the dividends he had hoped but it did not fail and the New South Wales Waratahs’ utility back will be keen to stamp his mark on the game in better conditions.
McKenzie’s biggest concern will be whether his tight five will be able to match the home side’s scrum power after they were put under intense pressure last week, even though referee Jaco Peyper’s whistle suggested otherwise. “We can’t afford to have a bad day at the office,” McKenzie said.
“So 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: Ben Smith; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Wyatt Crockett, Dane Coles, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock, Liam Messam, Richie McCaw (c), Kieran Read. Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.
Australia: Israel Folau; Pat McCabe, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne; Kurtley Beale, Nic White; James Slipper, Nathan Charles, Sekope Kepu, Sam Carter, Rob Simmons, Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper (c), Wycliff Palu. Replacements: James Hanson Pek Cowan Ben Alexander, Will Skelton, Scott Higginbotham, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Tevita Kuridrani.