Much has been made of the fact the Wallabies haven’t won at Eden Park for 23 years however not as much has been made of the fact for the first time in a long time, the Wallabies finally look to have a team capable of correcting this travesty.
That is not to say the Wallabies will start as favourites in this weekend’s test, but there seems to more than a hint of foreboding emanating from Nu Zulund which suggests even the home team thinks the Wallabies have a decent chance of winning.
So what are the match-ups that will be critical in determining the outcome of the game? For me it comes down to Moore vs Hore, Smith vs Richie, Gits vs Donald and Barnes vs Nonu.
Stephen Moore vs Andrew Hore
Hore has been rushed back into the starting XV after sustaining a rib injury in the AB’s loss to the Frogs last month. This is a clear vote of no confidence in Kevin Mealamu who hasn’t been at his best in two and a half tests he has played this year.
Hore is a grafter and scrapper which is just what is needed in these sorts of games I guess. The AB’s seemed to miss the starch he offers and the front-row will be more of a weapon with him at Hooker. Where Hore is not so on the money is with his line-out throwing, as demonstrated with the Canes having one of the worst line-out win percentages in the Super 14.
The line-out will be a crucial area of the game with the Wallabies expected to kick for field position and apply pressure so if the line-out is off, the AB’s will suffer.
Moore is quickly becoming the premier Hooker in world rugby and has improved dramatically on the international scene over the last year. He has been able to maintain his strong running game but has improved his set piece work to the point where he is now a dominant force. The fact the Wallabies now feel comfortable launching backline attack moves from the set-piece ball show how much Moore, and the Wallaby pack, has improved
His close quarter ball running will be vital to the Wallabies as the ruck defence of the AB’s was surprisingly porous against the French and Moore has enough ball skills to be able to offload if he makes a half break.
George Smith vs Ritchie McCaw
It is not too much of a stretch to say that this battle alone will determine the outcome of the match. For most of their respective careers these two have clashed, with McCaw generally having the better of it.
There is no doubt that McCaw will be under-done for this game but on previous occasions where he has returned from injury, no matter what the opposition or circumstance, he has immediately been on the pace and always seems to last the distance.
Perhaps the biggest skill McCaw will bring to the AB’s this weekend will be that of leadership. Without him the AB’s lacked direction at times in their recent tests and his ability to make it through the game will again be vital. Deans has clearly issued a challenge to McCaw by naming three open-sides in the Wallaby team and when you consider the AB’s have no recognised back up to McCaw on their bench, there is significant risk that should he not make it through the game, the AB’s will be sunk.
Smith plays his 100th test this weekend and is in the best form of his distinguished career. While Smith is shaded by McCaw at the breakdown to some extent, he excels in his skills around the field. His ability to be an extra play-maker has been evident this year and if he gains parity with McCaw in the tight, Smith may well be able to turn the game out wide.
It is always hard to split these two but in the wet and slippery Eden Park conditions, I expect that McCaw might just get the better of Smith. The question that will decide the game will be just long McCaw can keep it up for.
Matt Giteau vs Stephen Donald
Gits is the best no.10 in the world at the moment without question. He has carried his Super 14 form through the test series and was able to star in all of the Wallaby games he played without really getting out of third gear.
The most notable improvement in Giteau’s game this season has been his tactical kicking. It has been a focus of Deans’ to get the Wallabies backs to a point where they can successfully play a territory game rather than relying on aimless kicks and opposition mistakes.
Giteau still has the fleet of foot attacking prowess that will cause no amount of trouble should the Wallaby forwards do their job and allow him to get a reasonable supply of possession.
Donald has not been at his best in the recent tests and at times against the French looked a little out of his depth. Obviously Donald hasn’t impressed the coaching staff either as he no doubt would have been replaced by Luke McAlister if the latter had been fit.
Most concerning for the AB’s would be his poor goal kicking after years of the being able to rely on the assured boot of Dan Carter. In a game where opportunities will be few and far between, he must improve.
Donald cuts an angular figure on the field and looks fairly ungainly in most things he does. Sometimes the fact he isn’t a natural mover betrays the things he does well but the fact remains he is only a good player, and not a great one.
Berrick Barnes vs Ma’a Nonu
This match up sees the best attacker in the AB’s backline going up against the best defender in the Wallabies backline.
When things are going Nonu’s way he is un-stoppable as he showed in the AB’s second test against the French where he was simply too much for the French defence. However when a few things don’t go his way, he has a habit of retreating from games and allowing little errors to manifest into something bigger.
A problem that Nonu has with his game is that he cannot vary his play. This is probably fair enough as the crash ball invariably works for him, but there is a risk he may become stifled due to the Wallabies impressive defence.
Barnes hasn’t shown much in terms of attack this year, preferring to sit back let Maestro Gits run the show. What he has shown is superb defensive abilities. When the Wallabies played the French in Sydney, Barnes lead the defensive line and took on the larger French centres who must have wondered what the fuck was going on?
Barnes’ tactical kicking has improved this season but he is also capable of taking the ball to the line and putting team mates through gaps. It is this ability to vary his play that will cause the AB’s trouble, particularly Nonu, who is not the most solid of defenders when having to move laterally.
On balance I think the Wallabies have the better of it, as most of the AB big-guns are coming back from injury and have only had a couple of club games as a lead-up. The Wallabies on the other hand have had a settled team in the games they have played this season and are only relying on one player to make an impact first up after a spell.
You only had to see the muted reaction of the AB coaching staff after their victory against the Italians to realise how much pressure the whole squad is under, and pressure can do funny things.