Plenty for the All Blacks to prove in first Bledisloe Cup test

All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen, right, and Ian Foster welcome a touch examination from Australia. Photo: GETTY IMAGES.
GETTY IMAGES

All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen, right, and Ian Foster welcome a touch examination from Australia. Photo: GETTY IMAGES.

You're right to feel edgy. The All Blacks might lose on Saturday and that's not a thought many New Zealanders welcome.

Steve Hansen doesn't mind it, though. The prospect of defeat focuses a few minds and does a bit of his work for him.

It's not that he's lazy. Just that there's more satisfaction to be gained from achieving things that don't come easy.

Malakai Fekitoa is said to be back near his best form. Photo: PHOTOSPORT.
Getty Images

Malakai Fekitoa is said to be back near his best form. Photo: PHOTOSPORT.

"It's a pretty balanced side and, again, it's not for me to comment on who the Australians select, but when you go through the names they're all world class players. So if they gel together they're going to be tough and that's what test match rugby should be about," Hansen said ahead of Saturday's clash with Australia at ANZ Stadium.

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New Zealand's record at the ground is poor, winning just six times in 14 starts. Their last victory there was in 2013 which, by All Blacks standards, is an eternity.

The All Blacks are hopeful of combating David Pocock's threat at the breakdown. Photo: PHOTOSPORT.
MARK METCALFE/PHOTOSPORT

The All Blacks are hopeful of combating David Pocock's threat at the breakdown. Photo: PHOTOSPORT.

And, as Hansen said, the Wallabies aren't a bad side. History will probably regard Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu and Stephen Moore as among Australia's all-time greats.

Of those men, it's the combination of Pocock and Hooper who have the potential to cause New Zealand the most problems.

"They''ve substituted their [lineout] height for breakdown tenacity, I guess, and that's not the first time they've done it. It's a trick they've played numerous times now since probably a year ago and it's worked for them so it's the risk and reward isn't it," said Hansen.

"They're both good over the ball and it's about us making sure that we do what we do well, when we carry. But we've had a little bit at practice at coping with it."

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But Richie McCaw was leading the All Blacks' charge then. At some point we'll all stop referring to the blokes that aren't in the side anymore. For now, though, McCaw is among those who absence is very noticeable.

Without going through everyone who was in the team last year but isn't now, the midfield combination of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu is one that won't be replaced overnight. Saturday's pairing of Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa is a useful one, but hardly inspires the same confidence as their predecessors.

You know what you're going to get from Crotty, but Fekitoa's form has been very up and down this season.

"He's in the best shape we've had him for a long time. I think early in the year I would describe him as suffering from trying too hard. Trying too hard syndrome, there's a headline for ya," Hansen said.

"That's when you start thinking that 'I've got to do this to get selected' rather than concentrating on the key elements of his performance. We've managed to turn that around, he's a lot more comfortable and he's looking forward to Saturday.

"When he's not playing well he looked a bit wooden and [was] over-thinking things. He wasn't doing that this week in training and he certainly didn't do it in the game [against Northland and Counties] last week so we're pretty pleased with where he is actually."

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see what impact the absence of Dane Coles and Joe Moody from the frontrow has. Plenty of eyes will also be on first five-eighth Beauden Barrett and the back-three of Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo. Not to mention the impact Julian and Ardie Savea can make off the bench.

From the outcome, to how some individuals will perform, there's uncertainty about a lot of things actually. That's how it should be when it comes to test rugby.

 

 - Dominion Post

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