Mission Improbable

Gordon Bray: The Wallabies have not beaten the All Blacks on NZ soil since 2001.

The Wallabies have not beaten the All Blacks on NZ soil since 2001. That 23-15 result remains Australia’s solitary victory in Dunedin since their first match in the city 108 years ago.

Curiously the biggest sports story of the week here in NZ is not the Bledisloe Cup but Sonny Bill Williams and his future. SBW has had the media on both sides of the Tasman eating out of his hand.

A reminder that the media landscape has changed. Feting sporting heroes or pulling them down is now the modus operandi and social media sustains the feeding frenzy. Just ask besieged Socceroos’ skipper Lucas Neill.

This time last year in Brisbane the unfancied Wallabies snared a shock 18-18 draw ending a sixteen match winning streak for the All Blacks.  

Realistically, a repeat performance is possible but not probable.

The majority of that Kiwi team backs up this weekend and coach Steve Hansen will use that below par effort as a wake-up call to re-enforce the consequences if mind and body are not switched on.

The Wallabies are on notice. Despite their record breaking win in Rosario two weeks ago, the sobering message is they must now somehow subdue the rampant, seemingly bullet proof Men in Black.

The All Blacks are still coming down from their Rugby Championship triumph. Only the fourth NZ team to beat the Springboks at Ellis Park.

Surprisingly, against most predictions for that summit clash at  altitude, it was the proud home team that ran up the white flag  before fulltime, bowed and beaten.

To be sure, this was a mighty game of rugby between the current two best sides on the planet. The gut-busting pace never relented and the physicality in every collision was uncompromising.

Hansen and his expert coaching staff have certainly taken the All Blacks to dizzy heights. The collective finesse and connectivity of this team is now embedded in true sporting greatness.

Heady stuff for the Wallabies but just the sort of challenge Ewen McKenzie and his unheralded band of merry men will relish.  Clearly they have larger scope for improvement but do they possess the necessary class at this stage of their makeover?

So despite NZ claims there is no room to bask in reflected glory, complacency might yet be Australia’s biggest ally. This so called dead rubber has a poignant familiarity to the corresponding match at Suncorp last year.

The Wallabies started that clash with intensity and maintained the rage. The All Blacks suffered a letdown after completing a clean sweep of the Rugby Championship against the Springboks in Johannesburg.

Retiring Wallaby skipper Nathan Sharpe was heroic in a forward pack that has only two starting survivors this weekend. Flanker Michael Hooper and tight head prop James Slipper matched the same All Black unit which is missing only Brodie Retallick this Saturday.

Therein sits a significant point of difference for Dunedin. NZ has eleven starters from Suncorp, Australia just three. Team culture, familiarity of combinations, and well established inter-dependence, set the All Blacks apart.

The bottom line is that even if they are off colour, they still have the class and experience to prevail.  

Rosario again proved a bridge too far for the Pumas but you play as well as allowed and that is why the Wallaby victory should not be underestimated. The forwards excelled and the backs played with deception and vision.

The loss of Joe Tomane after his stormer against Argentina is unfortunate given the havoc he caused in midfield running off Quade Cooper passes. Newcomer Peter Betham has to relish a similar role.

Australia’s breakdown cleanout and accuracy was a big improvement and produced a steady supply of quick ball for Will Genia whose return to form was noticeably uplifting for teammates.

The support running in depth gave him more options and he constantly had the defence in two minds. Although Will won’t have the same latitude this weekend, the need for swift front foot ball is crucial for an upset result.

But perhaps the biggest factor in an improbable Aussie victory could be down to a man who won’t even be on the field. The decision by  outstanding  centre Conrad Smith to take a four month sabbatical means the Kiwi backline has lost its linchpin.

Smith organizes the aggressive backline defence, is a prime set of eyes in attack and has a unique ability to be in the right spot to reignite continuity. Throw in his running and passing skill and instinctive football brain and you have one of the all time great centres.

Namesake Ben Smith will be nominated for IRB Player of the Year but for all his freakish brilliance, he faces a big adjustment moving from wing to outside centre. Tevita Kuridrani will be right in his face.

I am sure the Wallabies have studied the video of their August performance in Wellington. For the opening twenty five minutes, they dominated the home team and could easily have been up by a good margin at half-time.

Instead, they allowed the All Blacks in for two quick tries just before the break and all the good work was undone.

Israel Folau’s late try put the Wallabies back in touch in what was an encouraging performance for a side swamped by the same opponent one week earlier.

The absence of tight head prop Owen Franks is another plus for Australia. Accordingly, James Slipper has a golden opportunity to make a quantum leap in his quest for recognition in the top flight.