The All Blacks open the Rugby Championship with back-to-back clashes against Australia. MARC HINTON assesses the Wallaby challenge.
This should be good: Quade Cooper in the role of saviour for a Wallabies outfit in not quite as parlous a state as their cricketing brethren - but not a million miles from it.
As anticipated, new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie has reinstated the man Kiwis love to hate as his playmaker for looming hostilities against the southern hemisphere's finest. It's a step backward he's gambling will produce a giant stride forward.
McKenzie fancies himself as a bit of a change merchant and problem solver. He'll need to be if he stands any chance, on the back of that deflating Lions series defeat, of halting an embarrassingly one-sided Bledisloe Cup ledger over the past decade.
The All Blacks own the Wallabies this century, with the shiny silver beacon of trans-Tasman rugby supremacy taking up permanent residence in the NZRU trophy cabinet.
McKenzie's predecessor, Robbie Deans, spent the best part of six years in the job while enjoying an almost singular lack of success against his country of birth - winning just three of 18 Bledisloe contests.
But that futility outlives even the Deans tenure. Over the past 10 years (between 2003 and 2012) the All Blacks and Wallabies have met 30 times, with the New Zealanders winning 23 of them, Australia six and just the one draw.
It's not quite the Globetrotters over the Washington Generals, but it's become a pretty one-sided rivalry. And McKenzie is well aware he'll be measured fairly and squarely by his success, or lack thereof, against the All Blacks.
"The Bledisloe is a pretty important marker in Australian rugby - it's a reference point," said McKenzie. "It's hard to win, too. This year we've got one at home and two away, and we've got to win two of them. Over history, Australia wins maybe a third, so you've got to buck history and buck the stats.
"Therein lies the challenge, but that's OK if you understand the environment you're going into. You've got to be able to push that to one side, not use it as an excuse, and find ways to create pressure and tip the balance."
McKenzie certainly doesn't lack belief, having tasted his fair share of success over the All Blacks, both as a player and then as an assistant coach with the Wallabies. He also has great conviction in his own instincts and will trust them to come up with a game-plan and group of players capable of unsettling the All Blacks who they meet home and away to open the Rugby Championship.
Which is where Cooper comes in. McKenzie has said he'll cast the net wide in the early stages of his tenure, looking to connect with as many contenders as possible. Hence his plan for an extended squad leading into the Bledisloe opener on August 17 in Sydney.
But his faith and familiarity in the Cooper-Will Genia halves axis will see the shunned five-eighth brought back and given first crack in the problematic No 10 jersey. James O'Connor is expected to be retained, but probably on the wing.
The feeling in Australia is McKenzie will make a few changes early on as he looks to stamp his mark. As well as the return of Cooper, he could give one or two form players from the Brumbies a crack, with the likes of prop Scott Sio, loosie Peter Kimlin and fullback Jesse Mogg at the front of that queue.
It could be frontliners against the Lions like Kurtley Beale, Michael Hooper and Benn Robinson drop into backup roles as he gives others a chance early in the competition.
He has told reporters in Australia they can expect new faces and an expanded squad from the outset. "Initially it would be slightly more than I would normally have because it's an opportunity to kick the tyres with a few blokes that I know less about," he told one writer. "I think that's important. Then we'll narrow it down."
The expectation is that McKenzie will get more out of his personnel than Deans was able to in recent years, partly because of his style and partly because he's a fresh voice with new ideas. Certainly he has a fairly good grasp on the task required as the Wallabies kick off with those back-to-back Bledisloes against the best team in the world.
"You've got to be clinical for 80 minutes," he told me in response to a question on why he thought the Wallabies' record had been so poor against the All Blacks of late.
"It's no good being good for 79 minutes. To beat the All Blacks you've got to be there at the death. When you're playing the good sides you've got to play the 80 minutes to get it right.
"The emotional and mental space is a key area. There are teams out there that have never beaten the All Blacks, which is an amazing statistic on both sides. That becomes an impediment in itself, and you've got to be able to push through that.
"Australia gets to play New Zealand more than anyone else, and we've probably had more success than anyone else in recent times. We give ourselves a chance every time."
With Cooper, and perhaps Mogg at fullback, adding strong kicking games, it will be interesting to see whether the Wallabies play the percentages or roll the dice against the All Blacks. One would suggest they've got nothing to lose by chancing their arm a little more.
Some might suggest that the mere inclusion of Cooper is a gamble in itself.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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