Australia play New Zealand at Stadium Australia in Sydney tonight in the first match of this year's Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship.
When I went to begin my research for the article, I immediately gave a deep gulp when I saw just how dominant the Kiwis are in the Bledisoe — New Zealand have won the enormous Cup 42 times, Australia just 12.
So, as usual, the Wallabies will have a mountain to climb.
Even in Australia, the All Blacks have been able to go out there and lay waste to the Wallabies’ hopes. Yes, the men in black have even won more trans-Tasman test matches at Stadium Australia than the blokes wearing gold guernseys.
However, the Wallabies do have a new coach – gruff, taciturn former Wallabies prop Ewen McKenzie – who coached previous deadbeats Queensland to a Super Rugby title in 2012 and who now hopes he can similarly turn around Australia's fortunes.
Previous to McKenzie’s ascension to the role, the Wallabies were coached by former All Blacks back Robbie Deans. Deans’s record with the Wallabies was not exactly poor — his record reads 74 tests for 43 wins, 29 losses and two draws a win/loss ratio of 59.45%.
This compares to Australia’s all-time ratio of 50.45% and in the professional era of 64.44%.
Against the All Blacks Deans’ record, however, Deans record was less acceptable: 18 matches for three wins, 14 losses and one draw — a win/loss ratio of just 19.44%. This compares unfavourably with Australia’s all-time record against New Zealand of 29.41% and, in the professional era, 31.52%.
There was a widespread feeling of unease amongst Wallabies supporters about having the Wallabies coached by a New Zealander.
This was seldom overtly expressed of course, but was usually whispered in corners of the bar were comments like:
“Can we really trust a former All Black to help us beat the All Blacks?”
This came to a head during the last World Cup in 2011, where Australia capitulated against New Zealand in the semi-finals 20-6.
Deans eventually resigned in 2013, with friction over not selecting star Queensland five-eighth Quade Cooper being cited as the primary reason for him giving up the job. In a move applauded by most Australians, McKenzie was duly appointed in his place.
His record so far has been generally good – nine wins from 15 – but with one glaring, disturbing hole. The Wallabies have played the All Blacks three times in the McKenzie era and lost all three times.
But that was then and this is now.
Most are optimistic of the fortunes of the Wallabies under McKenzie, at least partly because he is a star former Wallaby himself. He knows the culture of the team and, as a player who featured in Bledisloe and World Cup winning Australian teams — he knows what it is like to win big prizes with the Walllabies. He will, it is hoped, pass on that confidence to his young and highly talented team.
As Wallabies skipper from that 1991 World Cup winning Wallabies team, John Eales, said in an interview with Fran Kelly on ABC’s Radio National this week:
"Ewen is very determined to build a culture in the team. To not just accept what has gone on in the past. He wants to build confidence in the team.
"Also, he won’t just leave someone in the team because historically they've played well and it’s worked in the past, he’ll think what will work well for this game and into the future. He’s a very considered coach and very bright."
Thus for this Saturday night’s match Kurtley Beale has been put in at fly-half, over the recently installed Wallaby number 10, Bernard Foley, who was key to the Wallabies 3-0 series win over France earlier this year.
It is a suprising move, as Foley is in superlative form, being integral in the recent NSW Waratah’s victory over the Crusaders in the super rugby final.
But clearly McKenzie sees Beale as the more potent attacker for this game, saying:
“Bernard hasn't put a foot wrong since we chose him in June, but Kurtley has really stepped up his game over the past few months and he's consistently been one of the Waratahs best players every week."
Other changes announced at time of writing are Adam Ashley-Cooper moving from wing to outside centre, with Tevita Kuridrani going back to the bench. Rob Horne and Brumbies utility Pat McCabe are the new wingers, with Nick Cummins vacating his spot to take up a lucrative contract in Japan. In the forwards, in-form Western Force hooker Nathan Charles will start after Totafu Polota-Nau joins Stephen Moore on the sidelines with a knee injury. In addition, Sam Carter returns to the second row in place of Will Skelton.
For the All Blacks, the run-on side features only two injury-related changes from the third England test, with Wyatt Crockett in for the sidelined Tony Woodcock. Conrad Smith was to be returning from a hand injury, to demote Malakai Fekitoa to the bench, but Smith was ruled out yesterday, with Ryan Crotty now joining the bench.
They will also be without star five-eighth Dan Carter — regarded by most as the world's best player, who was injured in the Crusaders loss to the Waratahs in the Super Rugby final. Mind you, Carter's replacement Aaron Cruden is no slouch and has done the job for the All Blacks many times before.
The All Blacks have also selected Ben Smith at fullback instead of Israel Dagg. This highlights Smith’s talent, as the brilliant Dagg was a World Cup winner in 2011.
So, the Wallabies will don their green and gold shirts and go out to face the toughest mountain that any rugby team can face. Stats and history all point to a NZ win, however as John Eales said:
"There’s no doubt we [Australia] can win, whether we will win all depends on what happens on the night, you can have everything going your way, but it’s still going to be line ball against the All Blacks.”
Eales then added that:
“The All Blacks have a tremendous amount to play for, if they win on Saturday night they will have won 18 test matches in a row, which will be a new record for the most rugby internationals won in a row."
So come Saturday it will be game on, can the Wallabies do it?
Australia will be no easy beats and some signs do point to an Australian resurgence. The All Blacks looked rusty at times in their last series against unfancied England, while Australia shone against France. The Wallabies are on something of a run themselves, winning their last seven tests— something they had not achieved since 2000.
Let's hope we can go one better tonight. I’ve picked the All Blacks to win, but for the latest time on my sport watching life, I’ll be hoping like hell I am wrong.
Oh, and one last thing, the last time the All Blacks was on a streak like this – in 2012, after 17 consecutive test wins – their streak was stopped after a thrilling 18-18 draw by, that's right, Australia.
The Bingham Cup
And just a little footnote to this piece, on from August 24 to 31, in Sydney, the Bingham Cup is to be played.
The Bingham is the world’s gay rugby tournament, celebrating diversity in sport — having a strong “let’s tackle anti-homophobia in sport” theme.
The Cup is named for a leader in the area of gay rugby Mark Bingham, who established the San Francisco Fog Rugby Football Club — a club that was founded to allow all groups, minority or otherwise, to play some union.
Australian Rugby League players Sam and Tom Burgess are backing this event, with a view to eradicating homophobia in Australian sport.
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