Preview: Wallabies vs All Blacks

Keo.co.za previews the do-or-die Tri-Nations clash between Australia and New Zealand.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. These are the words Graham Henry and friends would have tossed about before naming the team to play Australia. Play an undercooked Dan Carter and suffer the consequences, or play a match-hardened but fallible Stephen Donald and suffer those consequences.

Ignore all pride and hit the panic button. Alternatively, pretend nothing is wrong, cover your head and pray everything turns out alright.

This assertion is not entirely accurate when you consider Henry will be praying regardless. Starting Carter is as much a gamble given he’s only played a couple of domestic games since returning from an Achilles injury.

It’s a gamble Henry needs to come off. Despite all claims to the contrary, Carter needs to be the miracle man if the All Blacks are to achieve the greatest comeback in Tri-Nations history. Sydney is but the first stop on a three-game miracle man tour.

Equipped with the spells and tools needed for such deep magic, the only thing this magician is lacking is practice. The good news is the Australians are just as desperate for a winning catalyst and are just as short on synergy.

The Wallabies’ last performance against the Springboks was terrible. Before the Tri-Nations started, the Boks were tipped as favourites, but the Aussies under Robbie Deans were marked as an underrated force. After the calamity in Cape Town, they remain more underrated and even less a force.

Carter’s return should see the All Blacks reverting to type, employing a tactical kicking game that’s proved the undoing of South Africa and Australia in recent years.

In Luke McAlister’s right foot, the All Blacks have another great option while Mils Muliaina should provide great support at the back. The modern game requires an exemplary kicking game, and New Zealand certainly have the personnel capable of pinning the Wallabies in their own territory.

James O’Connor may not be able to match Muliaina in this department, but Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes, another left-foot/right-foot combination, are capable of hurting teams with their tactical accuracy. Whether they receive the front-foot ball to do so is a completely different story.

It’s true the All Blacks aren’t the scrummaging unit they once were and their lineouts are about as well-orchestrated as a team rehearsal of the Kiwi national anthem. Again, the good news is the Aussies aren’t too flash in either department. Their scrum wasn’t as terrible as their lineout at Newlands, but they hardly dominated.

Although set-pieces will be important, the collisions will determine which side receives the best platform from which to kick or run. The Aussies may have Rocky Elsom back but have traded Wycliff Palu for the more mobile Richard Brown, while Kieran Reid has replaced the belligerent Rodney So’oialo. The speed to the breakdown and technique in the clean-out will be crucial, but individuals such as Richie McCaw and George Smith are the potential match-winners.

McCaw rarely comes off second best to Smith and is the favourite to influence this encounter. It’s the first ingredient to a near unbeatable combination. If McCaw fires, you’re halfway there, having slowed opposition ball or won a significant amount of possession on the deck. If Carter clicks thereafter, you’re likely to win more often than not. His line-kicking will ensure the New Zealanders play from deep in the Aussies’ half, while his distribution will ensure that each visit to that half results in points for the All Blacks.

Australia will become the first side to lose at home in 2009, an unfortunate first that will end their Tri-Nations campaign. The victory will be an important one for New Zealand, as the slick execution of a tried game plan will give them massive confidence before their final two fixtures.

With both teams battling for form, this is not going to be an example of clinical Test rugby. But because of the desperation, it should be as intense as they come.

JC’s call: All Blacks by 7

Wallabies – 15 James O’Connor, 14 Lachie Turner, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Richard Brown, 7 George Smith (c), 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Ben Alexander, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 David Pocock, 20 Will Genia, 21 Ryan Cross, 22 Peter Hynes.

All Blacks – 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 John Afoa, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Rodney So’oialo, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Ma’a Nonu.

By Jon Cardinelli