Much of this year's Tri Nations will be a phoney war but one real battle will take place on Saturday at Eden Park.
Both the All Blacks and the Wallabies will know the importance of this clash; just five weeks out from the World Cup, there are multiple reasons why this game is critical.
There is the obvious to consider. In their last 11 tests against the Wallabies, the All Blacks have won 10. The Wallabies stopped the rot in Hong Kong last year and the All Blacks didn't enjoy the manner in which the Australians celebrated; they didn't like the feeling either that they had somehow taken their foot off the throat of an opponent that was starting to be consumed with self-doubt and desperation.
Normally a wounded opponent is a dangerous beast but the All Blacks rather enjoyed their 10-test streak against the Wallabies. Australia are a much tougher side to beat when they are on a roll.
The All Blacks are also conscious that they have not lost a test at Eden Park since 1994. That is an intimidating record to thrust at opponents and it would be most unfortunate if the run were to end just 34 days before the opening game of the World Cup. The perception of the All Blacks as invincible at Eden Park would be immediately lost and the Wallabies, after having not won there since 1986, will start to sense the tide is turning if they can win this week.
A confident Wallaby is a dangerous Wallaby and no one will acknowledge this publicly but behind closed doors Robbie Deans will hammer home to his team that they can be confident about facing the All Blacks in a World Cup final on the same ground. The draw is all set up for these two to slug it out on October 23 and what better mental database to tap into than a victory this Saturday?
But there is the less obvious to consider as well. Who on this side of the Tasman can help but wonder just how good Quade Cooper really is?
It seems more wishful thinking than anything else that he might be a flake. The perception is he's exclusively reliant on his instincts; that he makes it up as he goes along. To an extent that is true with Reds coach Ewen McKenzie revealing before the Super Rugby final that he doesn't really have a game-plan as such. He's not one to format play or force Cooper into working from a range of options.
Yet so much of what Cooper achieves is not by chance. He is a diligent trainer and goes to extraordinary lengths to perfect his skills. What might seem spur of the moment was probably practised 100 times before risked in a game. The clever off-loads, the steps, the feints, the footwork - it's all naturally generated but is not necessarily spontaneous. What we see is the product of hard work and that's why he's so dangerous; and that's why he may in fact not be a flake at all.
Saturday will be the biggest test of his career. Super 15 is the ultimate platform for him and on hard grounds in games where the bonus-point culture encourages inordinate risk-taking, Cooper is the new Carlos Spencer - the man with all the tricks; the man with all the time in the world.
Test football, particularly this close to the World Cup, is a different kettle of fish. It's not like the All Blacks will need any help in recognising the need for them to close Cooper and Will Genia down. Line speed is paramount on defence and Cooper has to be hurried out of his rhythm. Just as the Boks used to unsettle Spencer with their rush defence, the All Blacks have to spend 80 minutes irritating Cooper. They have to leave him with nowhere to run, frustrate him into taking unnecessary risks.
So far this season no team has managed to do that. Not even the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final managed to curtail him. The Boks didn't even get close to bothering him last weekend and if he's given time to play, the Wallaby backline has the speed and skill to make a horrible mess of everyone they meet.
Nothing would boost the All Blacks' World Cup prospects more than destroying Cooper's self-confidence. He's clearly not one for a bit of rough and tumble and as well as sending Ma'a Nonu his way, the All Blacks will be hoping Cooper takes a wrong turn and meets a dead end - that is Kieran Read or Jerome Kaino or better still - one of Brad Thorn's ham-like forearms.
The occasion has to be memorably bad for Cooper. His memory of Eden Park has to be unambiguously bad so as there is no sense of him relishing coming back returning for the World Cup.By Gregor Paul Email Gregor