Auckland clash will reveal RWC favourite

JON CARDINELLI writes that Saturday’s Test between New Zealand and Australia could serve as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup final.

The All Blacks are currently the No 1 side in the world, and will be favourites to win the World Cup on their home soil. Some will expect them to choke as they have in past tournaments, while others will view their excellent record in New Zealand as ominous.

Everybody is looking for patterns, signs and omens in the lead up to the 2011 tournament, and no doubt the predictions will be altered again following Saturday’s Test. This clash is pivotal in the context of the Tri-Nations, and important with regards to the World Cup.

The All Blacks have the best draw in the Tri-Nations, playing two games at home before travelling to South Africa. They will face a stronger Bok side than the rabble that toured Australasia, but won’t have to deal with the effects of altitude nor the hostile home support typical of highveld venues.

They must be the favourites to win all three of their first three games. They’ve already beaten the Boks in Wellington, and will be expected to beat Australia this week. They will also fancy their chances of beating the Boks in Port Elizabeth.

They will be expected to beat Australia at Eden Park, as they haven’t lost to the Wallabies in Auckland since 1986. They will have targeted this clash as the most important of their Tri-Nations fixtures, as the winner will obtain a massive psychological boost ahead of the World Cup. The semi-finals and final will be staged at this venue, and so it will be important for the All Blacks to maintain their sense of invincibility.

But then the Wallabies will also realise what’s at stake. They will believe they can beat the All Blacks given what happened on 9 July. The Reds beat the Crusaders to bring Australia Super Rugby success for the first time since 2004, and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has already spoken about using that win as a springboard to greater things.

Knocking over the All Blacks at Eden Park would be a massive achievement in itself. It would end a 25-year losing record at the ground, and it would serve as a boost to their Tri-Nations chances.

They also still need to travel to South Africa, but if they beat the All Blacks in Auckland they will be favourites to beat them in the Tri-Nations finale in Brisbane. Suncorp Stadium is of course the venue where the Reds beat the Crusaders during the league stage of the Super Rugby competition, as well as in the final itself.

The past two weeks have witnessed one-sided matches, and have hardly deserved to be described as Tests. Not much would have been read into those games as any success against a second-rate Bok side doesn’t suggest that the Wallabies or All Blacks are where they need to be.

This Saturday will be a Test match that lives up to our expectations. There will be a number of intriguing smaller battles, with Dan Carter going up against Quade Cooper, and David Pocock testing his skills against Richie McCaw. It will also be interesting to see what happens on a collective level, and just who manages to play the big moments well.

Of course the coaches and players will deny that the game means something in the context of the World Cup. But the truth is that there’s more at stake this Saturday than the points on the Tri-Nations log. Less than three months from now, these two teams could be competing for rugby’s greatest prize on the very same ground.

The All Blacks are likely to face Argentina in the quarter-finals before meeting the Boks in the semis. If they negotiate the South Africans successfully, they will have booked their place in the final.

The Wallabies have a tougher road to the decider, and will need to beat the likes of Ireland in the quarters and one of France or England in the semis. But given the strength of the Sanzar nations in comparison with the other tier-one teams, the Wallabies will be favourites to win those matches.

While they have a lot of confidence and flair they are short on experience. This Saturday will show us how far they’ve come in their development, and whether they have the potential to challenge for the world title.

I suspect that the All Blacks will do enough to win this game, but if the Wallabies manage an upset it would do wonders for their World Cup chances. A Wallabies win on Saturday would also be good for the Boks, as they won’t feel confident about playing a probable World Cup semi-final at a venue where the hosts haven’t lost for a quarter of a century. A Wallabies win would confirm that the All Blacks are beatable at Eden Park.

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