Bledisloe Cup clash full of importance
The All Blacks have locked away the symbol of trans-Tasman supremacy following two victories over the Wallabies in their unbeaten run through the Rugby Championship to retain the southern hemisphere title.
Despite that success, coach Steve Hansen resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes to his side for the game at Otago Regional Stadium.
Instead, he shuffled outstanding winger Ben Smith into the vacant centre spot, reinstated Cory Jane after a long injury lay-off and gave lock Jeremy Thrush a chance to book a ticket on their end-of-season tour.
The spine of the side that has dominated the Wallabies, particularly in the forwards, however, remains intact with their focus on ensuring they head into their tour of Europe with an unbeaten 2013 record under their belts. “The boys are really motivated,” loose forward Liam Messam said this week.
“We want to back up another great performance like we did in South Africa,” he added in reference to their 38-27 victory two weeks ago over the Springboks. Hansen’s team have set standards since he took over from Graham Henry following the World Cup victory in 2011.
The All Blacks have played 23 Tests, won 21, drawn once, against the Wallabies in the corresponding fixture last year, and lost once, to a fired-up England last December.
The draw against the Wallabies stuck in the craw of Hansen and the team, who were attempting to set a world record for successive Test victories. The stalemate stopped their streak at 16, one short of the then record held by Lithuania. “Last year was a great lesson for all of us involved in that game,” said Messam. “To play like we did was disappointing.”
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, who replaced Robbie Deans in July, has had a troubled introduction to international coaching, winning just two of his six games, both against Argentina, and was also seeking consistency from his side. “We’ve got to get out and not just have a win against Argentina, but turn that into a second win,” said McKenzie.
The 1991 World Cup-winning prop has had to juggle a side beset by injury, with winger Peter Betham picked to make his Test debut tomorrow, a year after he had been forced to go to New Zealand to play provincial rugby to get some game time.
McKenzie has also struggled with his own selections, constantly rejigging his backline, dropping and recalling scrumhalf Will Genia and still uncertain over the flyhalf role, with Quade Cooper given the start against his country of birth this week. The former Queensland Reds coach, however, felt his side had improved since he took over and was hoping they continued that before a five-test tour to Europe.
“We’ve done good things in both those games (and) … we did better in the second game than we did in the first,” he said of previous clashes with the All Blacks.
“We didn’t do well enough to win, we did good things along the way. In that sense we improved, so we’ll hopefully improve again.”