Preview: New Zealand v Australia

Date published: August 22 2014


Round Two of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup sees both teams dried out and ready to fire as New Zealand host Australia.

Round Two of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup sees both teams dried out and ready to fire as New Zealand host Australia.

It's not often we emerge out of a Bledisloe battlefield with both teams feeling frustrated, but Round One in Sydney was an exception.

Nobody from fans to the players to a global audience watching on could have really taken any satisfaction from seeing New Zealand and Australia slug it out in nearly impossible conditions, to finish all square.

That's not playing up to the old cliché about draws and sisters either, because both teams had their own reasons to leave the Olympic Stadium spitting.

Even with Jaco Peyper 'putting his hands up' (in surrender perhaps) that some of his calls were wide of the mark, especially at the scrum, New Zealand produced one of their worst performances in some time.

Forgive Romain Poite if he's not bouncing of the walls with excitement for this one.

Steve Hansen's proclamation that his side “had a hell of a bad day” at the office was correct. At the end, down to 14 men again, they were holding on.

Sydney one could argue was actually New Zealand's third 'bad day' in their last five matches, taking into account the late drama of Dublin and a shaky first Test against England.

All the excuses are there for each match – the end of a long year, the start of a new one and apocalyptic conditions combined with a dodgy referee – but the All Blacks are loathe to use them. Using excuses suggests weakness. The number of near-misses though can't be ignored.

Whether Peyper was right to sin-bin Wyatt Crockett comes down to who you talk to. New Zealand fans protest that they are victims of a growing persecution by the game's officials. Others such as the now retired referee Jonathan Kaplan state that officials are finally reacting to the All Blacks being “guilty of marginal tactics under pressure.”

New Zealand now either panic or plough on. Richie McCaw's penalty count (four) in Sydney is a hard fact that he has to be more accurate (or streetwise). Keven Mealamu's mis-throw on an attacking lineout begged the question why he was introduced with Dane Coles on fire.

Their back three, usually so dangerous, barely touched the ball. Tactically New Zealand felt off colour, kicking the ball away so often and forced to produce not far from double the number of tackles as their opponents.

Then again, they've only lost one of their last 39 matches.

Is the gap closing? Writing off New Zealand still feels like lunacy, but the Wallabies have kicked on. Their domination of possession (66 percent) and territory (67 percent) in the end was criminally underused. What a chance they had to win.

In the first half the Wallabies were so poor with so many finer points of their game, from Nic White's kicking to the scrum to basic discipline, that a draw in many ways was an achievement.

The improvement though is obvious. This time last year fans and pundits were calling for McKenzie's head. Now the prospect of them winning in Auckland, admittedly unlikely, doesn't feel like madness.

James Slipper in many ways epitomises this. The Wallabies have lacked enough thrust from their pack for some time, but now through an evolved Slipper along with Nathan Charles, Sam Carter and the back-row of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and a rejuvenated Wycliff Palu, they have the carriers required to consistently get over the advantage line. It sounds such a basic concept, but when absent the lack of it is glaring.

That's what made the Waratahs so successful this year in Super Rugby with Sekope Kepu and Jacques Potgieter added into the mix. For Australia it's the difference between their attack staying muted or letting rip.

No team truly managed to produce quick effective ball in Round One, compounded by the abysmal weather, which is why the Kurtley Beale fly-half experiment gets another try.

Bernard Foley must still be smarting from his omission, arguably rightly so, but the potential chemistry of Matt Toomua and Beale swapping roles, with Brumbies familiarity present when adding Nic White into the mix, and having two playmakers makes it worth trying again.

White simply has to kick smarter and more effectively, making sure he pins back what looks on paper at least to be one of the more lightweight All Blacks' back divisions for some time without Nonu or Fekitoa in the mix.

Nonu joins a small but experienced injury list, including Jerome Kaino, Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock.

New Zealand, this New Zealand anyway, demand that their opposition produce a near perfect performance against them for victory to happen.

When England triumphed at Twickenham in 2012 everything seemed to go their way, from perfect line breaks to lapses from the All Blacks in defence.

There's no question the Wallabies have the tools, they just don't have the history in their favour with no win on Kiwi soil since 2001 at Carisbrook's 'House of Pain'. Stirling Mortlock had hair.

Rarely do New Zealand stumble two weeks in a row. The riot act appears to have been read. But that doesn't silence any lingering doubts, however big or small, regarding the All Blacks' status at the top of the game. Don't be surprised though if they smash those concerns into smithereens.

Ones to Watch

For New Zealand: Back in the fold following Kaino's elbow injury, Liam Messam has a chance to impress. 2013 was his year, the best blindside in the world excelling for the Chiefs and All Blacks. Perhaps a small wane in form shouldn't be a complete shock, but it has been noticeable. A key figure at the lineout and in the loose, the former Sevens player has a point to prove.

For Australia: Another forward, young Wallabies lock Sam Carter is making waves. Tipped to be a future Australian captain (although with Michael Hooper only being 22 he may have to wait a while), Carter brings added athleticism and physicality to the Wallabies pack. In the middle of a remarkable rise.

Head to Head: On what we hope will be a drier track at Eden Park, both full-backs should get their chance to shine. Ben Smith was underused in Sydney but look out for his clever lines as he the quick-footed Highlander searches for half breaks in the defensive line.

Smith is the magician to Israel Folau's juggernaut. Folau copped a bloody nose for his troubles last week and like the other back three players for both teams struggled to make an impact, but just watch how much damage he will cause if Beale and Toomua are at their creative best. Even as a dummy runner he's brutally effective in making space for others.

Previous Results:

2014: 12-12 Draw in Sydney
2013: New Zealand won 41-33 in Dunedin
2013: New Zealand won 27-16 in Wellington
2013: New Zealand won 47-29 in Sydney
2012: 18-18 Draw in Brisbane
2012: New Zealand won 22-0 in Auckland