The 12-12 stalemate in the opening Bledisloe Cup showdown was viewed as a lost opportunity for Australia, while New Zealand’s performance was largely disappointing despite holding on for a draw after enduring highly contentious yellow cards towards the end of each half.
This Saturday night, the Wallabies head to Eden Park – a graveyard for touring Australian sides for almost three decades – still needing to win two Tests to regain the trans-Tasman silverware. Ewen McKenzie has not made any alterations to his controversial first Test line-up, while the All Blacks’ bruised pride has been compounded by a couple of injury-enforced changes.
Here’s where the Wallabies’ daunting road trip will be won and lost.
The Eden Park factor
Auckland’s Eden Park is the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby, a status that was enhanced by the All Blacks’ long overdue World Cup final triumph in 2011. The All Blacks have vanquished interlopers in 32 consecutive Tests at the venue dating back to 1995. For Australia, it is an even more ominous destination. The Wallabies’ last success against the All Blacks at Eden Park was in 1986, losing 14 straight internationals in the 28 long years since. The effect of this hoodoo – and the baying capacity crowd – should not be underestimated, given this is a Wallabies side in the early stages of a rebuild.
To Beale, or not to Beale?
“The more changes you make, the more combinations you put at risk,” Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie said ahead of naming an unchanged side for the second Bledisloe Test. It could be argued that’s exactly what he did with his baffling line-up for the opening encounter but for now, at least, McKenzie has stuck solid with controversial No.10 pick Kurtley Beale.
Beale performed adequately in the opening Test, but it is difficult to tell whether the inclement weather hindered his game-breaking brilliance or concealed his backline marshal deficiencies. Bernard Foley replaced Beale with 10 minutes remaining, but it was not enough time to reprise his Super XV final heroics. A pressing question that has not been answered, considering McKenzie’s fondness for combinations, is whether Matt Toomua is really so good that he has to be picked at inside centre at the expense of the Waratahs’ backline fluency? Beale at No.12 still makes more sense.
Sydney’s big wet ruined the opening Test as an attacking spectacle, largely taking the free-running talents of both sides’ backlines out of the equation. Now with crystal clear conditions forecast for Auckland, which side will break the shackles more effectively? The All Blacks’ ball movement was sluggish at ANZ Stadium, the Wallabies’ only marginally better. But the prospect of New Zealand wing duo Julian Savea and Cory Jane in open spaces is certainly more daunting than manufactured Australian pairing Pat McCabe and Rob Horne with ball in hand. The Wallabies’ inside men can match the All Blacks attack-wise, but the rivals’ scoring potential out wide is poles apart. Fullbacks Ben Smith and Israel Folau again loom as the game-breakers.
Matching Sydney’s engine-room effort
The Wallabies’ oft-maligned pack matched their vaunted counterparts last weekend, arguably out-enthusing the All Blacks forwards and competing strongly in a perpetual area of weakness, the set piece. Kiwi legend Richie McCaw endured another frustrating night at ANZ Stadium, while his cocky young opposite captain and No.7, Michael Hooper, starred.
Australia’s defence was ultra-committed – missing just six tackles to New Zealand’s 21 – and the forward effort helped the home side dominate territory and possession; the Wallabies even managed to snaffle some opposition lineout ball. But they will need to improve on that performance at Eden Park against the smarting All Blacks engine-room. South African referee Jaco Peyper’s whistle-happy performance in the first Test was controversial to put it mildly, and Frenchman Romaine Poite is likely to be equally intrusive – particularly at scrum time.
Beware the wounded champs
Panned on both sides of the Tasman for a subpar all-round performance in the Bledisloe opener, and now contending with a clutch of injury concerns, the All Blacks’ backs are against the wall. Centre talisman Conrad Smith returns after missing the first Test to be at the birth of his first child, but perennial midfield partner Ma’a Nonu has been ruled out by injury, which gives Canterbury’s Ryan Crotty his maiden Test start. Blindside Jerome Kaino has also joined the casualty ward, replaced by the vastly experienced Liam Messam.
A scratchy series win over England and last Saturday’s disappointing draw has started murmurs that this New Zealand side is a superpower on the decline. But there are too many all-time greats near or at the peak of the powers – all still with plenty to prove – for hopeful Australian rugby fans to be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of an All Blacks ‘transition phase’.