All Blacks focus on the now

BY MARC HINTON IN SYDNEY
Last updated 18:45 10/09/2010

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All Blacks

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While the All Blacks offer a glimpse of the future in the Tri-Nations finale against the Wallabies, they remain adamant that the present is all they are concerned about.

In other words, just because the two big trophies are tucked away for another year, this is no time to take the eye off the ball. And two important factors should help Graham Henry's men retain all the focus they need to continue their dominance over the Wallabies when they meet for the third time this year at ANZ Stadium.

First, the events in Christchurch have given the All Blacks a powerful motivator. So many of the team and management reside in the earthquake-ravaged city and New Zealand's iconic sporting team have pledged to deliver a performance to "put a smile" on the beleaguered people of Canterbury.

Second, history beckons for this team and they have come too close to some significant marks to step on the banana skin now. A win on Saturday night would see them extend their winning streak against the Wallabies to a record 10, as well as become the first side ever to complete a 6-0 sweep of the Tri-Nations.

These milestones have been highlighted by Henry and the team has been challenged to embrace them. They would be monumental achievements both.

Further, victory at the former Olympic stadium would also extend the New Zealanders' test winning streak to 15, putting them within a tantalising two of the mark held jointly by the 1965-70 All Blacks and 1997-98 Springboks. The official record is 18 set by Lithuania over a five-year period through until May this year - and the New Zealanders could do everyone a favour by surpassing that as well.

Also no team has posted the perfect test year since rugby went professional, though John Hart's 1997 side did go unbeaten with a draw in their final match at Twickenham. You have to figure that the next two clashes against the Wallabies are the biggest challenges the All Blacks will face for the rest of 2010, with just a Grand Slam tour to follow.

But Henry has possibly increased the All Blacks' challenge on Saturday night by taking his "glimpse" at the future. By giving Dan Carter his surgery now, he has handed rookie 21-year-old five-eighth Aaron Cruden the biggest assignment of his short international career. Throw in the promotion of 22-year-old Israel Dagg on the wing (for Joe Rokocoko) and 23-year-old Victor Vito on the flank (for Jerome Kaino) and you have a trio of freshmen making their first Tri-Nations starts.

Despite Australian media suggesting Henry was risking "conceding" the match with his tinkering, there's method to Henry's madness.

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Allowing for the fact that Carter had to have his surgery done at some stage, now seems a perfect time to gauge the youngsters, to give them much-needed starting experience and, frankly, to build some depth. Injuries happen. The All Blacks have to have men ready to step in if needed.

Plus you can make a case that the addition of Dagg and Vito do not weaken the All Blacks and may, in some ways, enhance them. Dagg is a rare talent and, as Wayne Smith likes to say, seems "made" for this level. He's earned this shot. Vito, if not the defensive presence of the robust Kaino, is also an exceptional attacking force.

Given the way these Wallabies seem intent on playing - they conceded 83 points as they split their matches in South Africa over the previous fortnight - the youngsters could have a field day.

Which brings us to Cruden and his pivotal matchup against Wallaby Quade Cooper. The Australians are pinning plenty on the presence of the New Zealand-born Cooper who has never played the All Blacks. They optimistically believe he could be a difference-maker in their quest to end their Kiwi hoodoo, and he certainly adds a layer to their attacking game. However he's no noted defender and the prospect of seeing plenty of Ma'a Nonu steaming down his channel must be a nervous one for Robbie Deans.

But Cruden can probably expect a similar examination. The young man from Manawatu is undoubtedly talented - and his team-mates have rallied round him this week - but this is new territory for him as he bids to stake his claim as the long-tern successor to the great Carter.

Veteran midfielder Conrad Smith says the All Blacks have a fairly rigid mindset about Saturday night, and acknowledges history comes into the motivation equation.

"We've talked about finishing off on a high," he said. "Anyone can win the Tri-Nations but you want to win it in style. I don't think anyone's gone unbeaten through six games. I didn't think it would be possible. We've got a great chance and I'm sure we're up for it."

Fullback Mils Muliana echoes those thoughts.

"We're on the job. For us this isn't a dead rubber. We want to finish the competition off well, and we know we've still got a long way to improve. It would be easy to button off with both trophies in the cabinet, but this group is dead-set keen on doing things right."

Nonu says dominance over the trans-Tasman rivals simply never becomes old for an All Black. "We always like to beat Australia and they like to beat us. It's one of those situations where you forget about the last game so this is a new challenge this week.

"We've got to take it to them physically. We have to be smart as well, they're a team that like to attack around the rucks with Will Genia, so we just have to match them up."

It's hard to see how the All Blacks don't keep on keeping on come Saturday night. They're rested, revived and rejuvenated by the introduction of their youngsters. The Wallabies, on the other hand, are weary and for all their Bloemfontein heroics they have some real defensive weaknesses.

New Zealand, simply, are a much better rugby team right now.

NEW ZEALAND: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Israel Dagg, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Piri Weepu; 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Victor Vito, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock. Reserves: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 John Afoa, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Jerome Kaino, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Rene Ranger.

AUSTRALIA: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 James O'Connor, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Lachie Turner, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia; 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (capt), 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Mark Chisholm, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson. Reserves: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 James Slipper, 18 Dean Mumm, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Berrick Barnes, 22 Anthony Fainga'a.

FACTBOX

Australia's worst Bledisloe Cup rugby losing streaks against the All Blacks ahead of tomorrow's test in Sydney at ANZ Stadium (10pm kickoff NZ time):

9 - 1936-1947

11-6 at Wellington, 1936

38-13 at Dunedin, 1936

24-9 at Sydney, 1938

20-14 at Brisbane, 1938

14-6 at Sydney, 1938

31-8 at Dunedin, 1946

14-10 at Auckland, 1946

13-5 at Brisbane, 1947

27-14 at Brisbane, 1947

9 - 2008-10

39-10 at Auckland, 2008

28-24 at Brisbane, 2008

19-14 at Hong Kong, 2008

22-16 at Auckland, 2009

19-18 at Sydney, 2009

33-6 at Wellington, 2009

32-19 at Tokyo, 2009

49-28 at Melbourne, 2010

20-10 at Christchurch, 2010.

FACTBOX

Wallabies' Bledisloe Cup rugby results against the All Blacks since Robbie Deans was appointed head coach in 2008:

Played 10 won 1 lost 9; points for 179, points against 280

July 2008 at Sydney won 34-19

Aug 2008 at Auckland lost 10-39

Sept 2008 at Brisbane lost 24-28

Nov 2008 at Hong Kong lost 14-19

July 2009 at Auckland lost 16-22

Aug 2009 at Sydney lost 18-19

Sept 2009 at Wellington lost 6-33

Oct 2009 at Tokyo lost 19-32

July 2010 at Melbourne lost 28-49

Aug 2010 at Christchurch lost 10-20.

-with NZPA

- Stuff

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