Johnstone: Time for All Blacks to break shackles
The Bledisloe Cup rematch at Eden Park is a pivotal test for the All Blacks on many fronts, not the least being a need to reassert their authority on the game a year out from their defence of the World Cup.
The 12-all draw with the Wallabies last weekend represented the most inept All Blacks performance since winning the golden trophy in 2011.
But it wasn't an aberration.
Concerns about Steve Hansen's side go back eight months to the dramatic end of their 2013 campaign when they squeaked home against Ireland in injury time.
In an alarming trend, late heroics were also required to sneak past England in Auckland and Dunedin earlier this year.
Yes, good teams handle tight situations and that has become a hallmark of the current outfit. But it's time for the All Blacks to break the shackles.
Even their third test domination of England at Hamilton fell flat through a sloppy second half.
Eden Park needs to be a statement by the All Blacks, a performance to ease those nagging doubts as the rest of the major rugby nations work not just to close the gap on them, but overtake them at next year's global extravaganza.
There's more at stake than just the mental marker though.
The Bledisloe Cup can be retained here and a victory is crucial for the retention of the Rugby Championship title where home victories are the foundations for overall success.
Despite the prospect of a muddled midfield, I would expect the All Blacks to perform much better on Saturday.
Historically they have rebounded from losses or indifferent performances with strong showings.
Given the blow of missing out on a world record for consecutive wins, the All Blacks are smarting. A draw was as good as a loss in that context, though it was as valuable as a win in terms of the Bledisloe Cup and not far short of that with regard to offshore results counting in the Rugby Championship.
So expect a bit of grumpiness in the All Blacks mood this week, a motivator to make amends and also preserve their remarkable record at Eden Park where they haven't lost since 1994 and haven't lost to the Wallabies since 1986, a winning sequence of 14 tests against the Australians.
The Wallabies will make much of their improved showing, especially up front where their forwards gained their own "draw" in terms of matching an All Blacks pack that had been vastly superior in recent seasons.
But behind the gloss of matching the All Blacks on the scoreboard would be the glaring reality that the Wallabies missed a golden opportunity in Sydney and there were concerning factors there that couldn't be easily hidden.
They failed to overhaul a 14-man opponent for 20 minutes. They showed immature leadership in turning down repeated penalty offerings in the dying stages of the first half and neglected a grand chance to set up a dropped goal attempt in the dying stages that may have won them the tightest of tests.
Discipline aside, it was the All Blacks who held their composure.
They also produced a far superior kicking game that had been a hallmark of their lengthy dominance.
Adding the silky touches to that was now the All Blacks' challenge.
In a series where both teams have thrown out some mental barbs, it would be how each camp viewed the significance of last week's draw and react to it that counted at Eden Park.
I would suggest another Wallabies tombstone was already being worked on at a ground that has become their graveyard.