AFTER a valiant but unsuccessful opening to their Tri-Nations campaign in South Africa, the Wallabies face a step up in opponent as they take on the premier team in world rugby – the All Blacks. What can we expect from this game and where will the key battles on the field be?
To start with, there are two areas of the game that the Wallabies need to be wary of; gifting the AB’s ball in open space, and a disintegration of the scrum. The first of these can be avoided by playing a tighter game and getting enough bodies to the ruck, fast. Putting Ashley-Cooper at wing (a pretty puzzling selection with Gerrard in the squad) is at least a signal of this intent. Crucial will be the Australian kicking game; over-reliance and inaccuracy in this area will prove catastrophic.
Unfortunately the second danger area – the scrum – can’t be avoided. Hayman and co. demolished the Springbok front row that Australia just managed to find parity with. I have a bad feeling about this in the pit of my stomach and just hope that the techniques that came to the fore against South Africa can somehow save our bacon.
On the bright side, our performance against the boks showed the kind of guts and aggression that are key to taming the All Blacks. They have only one gear – forward – and as good as McCaw is, he leaks penalties in reverse. In the loose, the pack, especially the back row, will need to have a mammoth game in both power and pace. Smith has been looking more like the 7 he used to be before Jones tried to turn him onto an 8. As a replacement it would be good to see Hoiles on before Chisholm.
Another ray of sunshine comes from the line-out. This is a perennial Achilles heel for New Zealand as exposed by Matfield last Saturday. This weekend is a chance for Vickerman and Sharpe to get their contesting of the line-outs going. It needs to be a well-honed weapon by the RWC.
In the backs, combinations are going to have to click. Larkham is going to have to take a battering keeping the Kiwi line honest and all are going to have to snuff out All Black attacks before they go wide. It’s heartening to see Staniforth on the bench, but the experiment of Ashley-Cooper against Rico Gear or Rokocoko is asking for trouble. Huxley’s kicking game and experience in defence will be stretched.
This is one of those games where as a Wallabies supporter, it’s to find confidence in a win. However, because of this, a good result could well signal a turn-around in RWC expectations for Australia. This saturday is the our best opportunity for such a turn of the tide.
Australia: Julian Huxley, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Stirling Mortlock (capt), Matt Giteau, Lote Tuqiri, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Wycliff Palu, George Smith, Rocky Elsom, Dan Vickerman, Nathan Sharpe, Guy Shepherdson, Stephen Moore, Matt Dunning. Res: Adam Freier, Al Baxter, Mark Chisholm, Stephen Hoiles, Phil Waugh, Scott Staniforth, Mark Gerrard.
New Zealand: Leon MacDonald, Rico Gear, Mils Muliaina, Luke McAlister, Joe Rokocoko, Daniel Carter, Byron Kelleher, Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerry Collins, Troy Flavell, Chris Jack, Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver, Tony Woodcock. Res: Keven Mealamu, Neemia Tialata, Ross Filipo, Chris Masoe, Piri Weepu, Aaron Mauger, Nick Evans.