Huge amount at stake for Bledisloe battle

MARC HINTON IN SYDNEY
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014

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The reshuffled All Blacks can make history tonight at Sydney's grand Olympic stadium and could also go a long way to consigning one of their great rivals to history in the process.

This is a test match that shapes as a defining moment for one team and a crowning one for the other - providing Steve Hansen's All Blacks can shake off the hurried late departure of veteran centre Conrad Smith for the birth of his first child.

The Wallabies are desperate to win to give credence to the theory that there's a rugby renaissance in process on their side of the Tasman, and at the same time loosen the All Blacks' vice-like grip on the Bledisloe Cup.

For the New Zealanders, the motivation is twofold - never give a sucker an even break and embrace the chance to rack up the game's greatest win streak at the top level.

In case you haven't been counting, the New Zealanders have rattled off 17 straight test victories. One more tonight puts them alone at the mountaintop.

It's such a special feat, tantalisingly within reach, that even the notoriously tunnel-visioned All Blacks have been hugging and kissing it all week.

It was one of the first things they spoke about when they assembled in Auckland, quite rightly figuring it would be silly not to acknowledge the test's main sub-text. But it's been covered and parked.

These guys understand the minute you start pondering the glory, reality comes up and smashes you in the kisser.

That reality comes in the form of a Wallabies outfit imbued with dangerous confidence, belief and determination.

They've been the red-cheeked whipping boys of the All Blacks for longer than they care to remember and understand if they're any chance of contending in England next year they have to halt the black tide.

But the winds of change are blowing on the populated side of the Tasman. Or at least that's the theory espoused by the many pom-pom wavers in good old 'Straya.

The Waratahs eclipsing the mighty Crusaders to claim their first Super Rugby crown was hailed as proof positive of that.

The All Blacks have, to a man, rubbished any correlations between Super Rugby glory and test success.

But Ewen McKenzie now clearly has himself a pretty decent pool of talent - though it would appear it's stretched to the limit at the moment up front and on the wing.

Just quietly, they've rattled off seven straight test victories of their own and rediscovered the confidence that's never buried too deep in the kitbag of an Aussie sporting team.

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The All Blacks are settled, even if they're down some old stagers, and now Smith the elder.

They cover for those warhorses about as well as any team could (Malakai Fekitoa certainly increases the power quotient in midfield) and send out a group with no visible weaknesses and a good many strengths.

Any side that can leave a player of Israel Dagg's class out altogether has to have something going for it and Hansen's mixture of hard-nosed veterans, established performers at the peak of their powers and rising young stars will take some containing.

Wyatt Crockett, Dane Coles, and Jerome Kaino are all highly motivated forwards who will throw themselves into the fray.

Kieran Read looks back in the form that made him the best player on the planet last year and the backline oozes class, and now a little more X-factor too.

The Wallabies have more question marks hanging over them, especially Kurtley Beale at No 10.

Steve Hansen was ''dumbfounded'' by that call; we will see tonight if it was a McKenzie masterstroke or a miserable miscalculation.

There is class in their lineup. Skipper Michael Hooper is a warrior and, in the backs, Beale, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau are match-winners on their day.

But the set-piece faces a stern examination and the Wallaby desire to play at pace will be a dangerous game of rugby roulette against this opposition.

The All Blacks have the chance tonight to inflict a damaging reality check on the Australian game.

A Bledisloe Groundhog Day would make it a long, long way back for the Wallabies - this year and maybe next too.

- Stuff

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