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Fools Paradise or Fools Gold

James Packer should ensure that Ewen McKenzie is banned from his new high roller casino at Barangaroo if the Wallaby coach continues to defy the odds.

McKenzie has not backed away from big calls in his twelve month tenure.  His latest injection of Kurtley Beale to the no.10 hotseat is bold and breathtaking. Time will tell if it breaks the bank but my advice is don’t bet against him.

Link’s often poker-faced façade disguises an inner rugby organism that pumps in tune with his heartbeat. Never resting, always questioning and forever seeking successful pathways and outcomes.

Impressive rival coach Steve Hansen is a different model altogether but his amazing record of one solitary loss since the 2011 Rugby World Cup speaks for itself.

 

Kurtley Beale

However his “dumbfounded” reaction and rugby league jibe at Beale’s selection is hardly the mind game of a supremely confident man. Hansen should be confident. He has the best rugby team in the world but are some cracks starting to appear?

In a similar vein, the All Blacks’ camp has been swift to dismiss suggestions that the Waratahs’ epic win over the Crusaders has any relevance to this weekend’s showdown. “Rubbish,” claimed Hansen. “No correlation at all.”

I beg to differ. For starters, disclaimers across the Tasman stated these are two totally different teams and Super rugby is not Test rugby.

Other critiques suggested the Tahs’ escaped the noose in the set piece because there were very few scrums.

All of these points have merit but to discount the impact of the Waratahs’ performance on the Wallabies’ mindset runs the risk of cocooning oneself in a fool’s paradise.  What are the odds the spin doctors have been at play?

 

Training

Significantly, there are seven NSW players starting at ANZ Stadium and two more on the bench. However only Sekope Kepu survives in the tight five as opposed to three Crusaders - Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett and Sam Whitelock.

Add Kieran Read and skipper Richie McCaw and you have five Crusaders among NZ’s eight forward starters. Fellow backrowers Wycliff Palu and Michael Hooper make a grand total of eight influential forwards who started the Super XV Final. 

Australian Rugby is currently undergoing a metamorphosis from the top down. After more than a decade in the wilderness, confidence has resurfaced and with it comes self-belief, for the players and fans alike.

It has been a painful journey so to now suggest that key X factor players like Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper have not experienced a massive psychological boost through their Super triumph is abject hogwash.

 

Israel Folau

What’s more, the new level of mateship and unity driven by Super coaches Michael Cheika, Stephen Larkham and Michael Foley in particular, has been infectious for McKenzie and his high performance management team.

To be honest, I haven’t felt this excited about a  Bledisloe Cup match for over a decade. This one has a genuine  ‘2000 Revisited’ feel about it. 

An All Black team at the peak of its powers with a new found respect for its Aussie cousins. Two teams which will go flat chat from the opening gun and then  two awesome benches to determine last man standing.

Like that world record crowd of over 109,000 in 2000, the home fans will be louder than normal. They realize they have to be if they are to help their Wallaby heroes across the line.

If it is any consolation for Australian fans, Jonah Lomu will be in the stand this time.  But that does not escape the fact that the All Blacks’ back division oozes class, pace and extraordinary skill.

As well as Bernard Foley has played this year, the Kurtley Beale selection might just have rattled the Kiwi cage. The All Blacks hated playing against the likes of Campo (David Campese) and Mark Ella because of their unpredictability. Same goes for Kurtley.

However as much as we sing the praises of the two backlines, the other half of the equation will determine the outcome of McKenzie’s Sydney or the bush wager.

The All Blacks will expectantly target the Wallaby scrum and in particular new starting hooker Nathan Charles. My advice to the Men in Black is “forget it”. Nathan has already scaled Mt Everest in his battle with cystic fibrosis.

Nathan Charles

Over the past decade the All Blacks have entered these clashes privately believing they had both a physical and mental edge over the Wallaby forwards. They also backed their fitness under pressure against all comers.

That distinct cutting edge is now in question. Finally you have a bunch of Wallabies who genuinely believe they have closed a sizable gap and are geared to back themselves under a coach who knows how to win the mind games and the hand to hand combat.

The Kiwis have devised ways to nullify Israel Folau and therein lies Kurtley’s big challenge. To give Izzy space and time to work his magic.

If the Wallabies are accurate and secure in their kick-chase and kick-receipt, can repel the All Blacks’ counter rucking and driving maul and hold their discipline and composure, their odds will tumble. 

Back to the future. Bring on 2000. Jonah scored the last gasp winning try but this time the man he refers to as ‘the smiling assassin’ scorches over. Israel Folau in the same corner. Same 39-35 score, but a different victor.  Roll the dice Ewen.

Gordon Bray is TEN’S chief rugby caller and will be joined by Wallaby legends Matt Burke and Stirling Mortlock for the live telecast from 7.30pm Saturday AET.