Rugby: Teetering on the edge of a new era

The All Blacks sense a chance to send the Wallabies into an emotional tailspin, writes Gregor Paul.

The confrontations between Richie McCaw and Quade Cooper typify the nastiness thathas crept into tests between the All Blacks and Wallabies. Photo / Getty Images
The confrontations between Richie McCaw and Quade Cooper typify the nastiness thathas crept into tests between the All Blacks and Wallabies. Photo / Getty Images

A change of coach and the arrival of new faces has filled the Wallabies with optimism ahead of Saturday's Bledisloe Cup clash. But the All Blacks are viewing things a little differently.

They can sense the opportunity to send Australia into an emotional tailspin, leaving the Wallabies in psychological turmoil by delivering the same old result just 80 minutes into Ewen McKenzie's new beginning.

What then for Australia? What if the Wallabies can't compete in the scrum, are second best at the breakdown and unable to deal with the tempo and intensity of a multifaceted All Black attacking repertoire?

Those were the familiar themes throughout the Robbie Deans coaching era and McKenzie has been brought in to fix them up, to make them a credible contender for No 1 in the world rather than drift between two, three and four, a long way behind the All Blacks.

Australia's sporting public embrace losing national sides as they would a bout of dysentery.

If the Wallabies lose in Sydney, they will have six days before a Wellington rematch. Two games into his reign, McKenzie might find half the nation drifting into shopping malls on a Saturday afternoon, convinced the game in their country has run out of ideas.

The potential vulnerability of the Wallabies will be used to help focus All Black minds this week and ensure that the preparation is, as per coach Steve Hansen's much-loved phrase, "bone deep". That's what the All Blacks learned last year; when they had clarity of game plan and intense mental and physical preparation leading into tests, they were untouchable.When they didn't, they were no better than anyone else.

There was another reminder of that in June. The All Blacks were outstanding in the second test, a touch erratic and inaccurate in the first and third. That 30-0 demolition of France in Christchurch was the best clue the All Blacks have provided as to how they want to play the game this year.

"Playing a high intensity, aerobic game doesn't just mean that we will be running and running," says Hansen. "It's about having a great chase game - not just chasing one kick but chasing every kick, if we do it often.

"It's about having versatility, as we found by the end of last year we had become a little bit predictable.

"If you are only attacking in one area of the field, then the opposition know they only have to defend one area of the field. So we have looked at our attacking options and what we want is intensity. We want to make other teams uncomfortable for long, long periods. The beauty of that second test performance is that no one could say it lacked intensity."

Quade Cooper will likely be back in the Wallaby No 10 shirt this week and Richie McCaw will definitely be back in his beloved No 7 jersey. The All Blacks would like the game to be incident-free -for the Wallabies to desist with cheap shots and personal vendettas; to win or lose with dignity and humility and to begin the process of underpinning transtasman relations with mutual respect.

That's what the All Blacks would like but ever the realists and pragmatists, they will wait to see whether that's what they get.

The Robbie Deans era probably wasn't great for Australian rugby - it definitely wasn't great for the All Blacks' rivalry with the Wallabies. It went from intense to acerbic and the last five years saw a mutual loathing and contempt develop between New Zealand and Australia.

It can't all be blamed on one man but the curious circumstances of Deans' arrival in Australia six years ago and his fractured and difficult history with the various members of the All Black coaching team over the period had much to do with the deterioration. There was always this feeling that, while Deans hadn't actively fostered belligerence towards the All Blacks, he didn't do much to deter it either.

Is it: remove Deans, remove the tension? With Deans out, can this rivalry regenerate into one that carries greater edge in terms of outcome than it does off-the-ball nonsense? Will we see the welcome arrival of classic encounters; - the sorts that were common in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when games ebbed and flowed and the gamblers fretted?

Most important is whether the McKenzie era begins the process of strengthening the Anzac bond? The All Blacks want that; they want to be able to share a beer in the changing rooms afterwards.

They want the pre-and post-game theatre to be respectful.

But there is six years of history to be turned. Hardly any of the current Wallaby squad have known life in the test arena under any other coach than Deans. Much of how they feel about the All Blacks is ingrained.

It won't be easy for them to lose the sense of paranoia and siege mentality their former coach gave them. It also won't be easy for them to forget they are coming into this game with so much more to prove than the All Blacks. The pressure is on the Wallabies to turn their season around from the series defeat against the Lions, addressing statistics which say the All Blacks have won 23 of their last 30 tests against the Wallabies.

With that weighing against them and the desperation they must be feeling to start McKenzie's era with a win, it won't be a surprise if the Wallabies erupt to the point of gloating should they win - as they
infamously did a few years back in Hong Kong - or resort to letting their frustration show should the game start slipping away from them.

The All Blacks, asmuch as they hope it won't, suspect the Cold War may last a bit longer.

The Wallabies are convinced they have an element of surprise.

New coaches always like to think that, yet it's doubtful the All Blacks will underestimate the threat, even if they can't be sure of the specific formit will take. "It's obviously going to be a massive test for us," says Hansen.

"We really will have to prepare well and do what homework we can around what we expect will be a different game plan [from them].

Having taken the attack coach from Queensland, we expect they will be a mixture of what happens at the Reds and what the Wallabies have previously been doing."

The problem the Wallabies have is that even if they strike on a better style, it's difficult to see where they can outplay the All Blacks. In the scrum? Not likely. At the breakdown?

Maybe in patches but not for 80 minutes. Their midfield lacks dynamism and may struggle to get the ball quickly to Israel Folau, their one undisputed point of difference.

The even bigger problem for the Wallabies is that their inferiority complex has been deep-rooted and toxic since 2008. The All Blacks have owned them to the extent that, in all honesty, New Zealand were more fearful of the Pumas than the Wallabies last year.

The All Blacks haven't been complacent or arrogant - they simply developed confidence that they could beat Australia while Deans was coach. Under Deans, the All Blacks couldn't see anything to fear. They knew Australia had several good players and one great one in Will Genia but not the collective clout, venom or imagination to put it all together and be a serious threat every time they played.

Just as the Wallabies have become conditioned to losing, the All Blacks have learned the art of winning.

They have learned the value of being composed and patient, having seen the dividends that reaps.

- Herald on Sunday

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