The annual Bledisloe Cup marathon kicks off this weekend as the two unbeaten Tri-Nations sides go head to head in Melbourne.
On the face of it, both teams have had very encouraging starts, each with convincing wins over last year’s winners South Africa – but the Boks were there to be beaten and it’s tricky to know how much credit is due to the Kiwis and Wallabies.
It’s easy to see why the All Blacks are favourites for this fixture. Back-to-back bonus-point wins over South Africa, eleven victories in a row against all opposition and evidence that Dan Carter is somewhere near his best ever form.
Their pack has found an extra level of performance, with players like Brad Thorn and Tom Donnelly dominating lineout ball, and Number 8 Kieran Read emerging as a world class back row forward. Their backs are as deadly as always.
Australia aren’t in bad shape either, but I can’t help feeling that last week’s scoreline flattered them a little. The Boks penalty count was ridiculous, and the Wallabies punished them again and again, but they won’t get that sort of charity from this week’s opponents.
David Pocock and Rocky Elsom were superb at the breakdown and in their general contributions around the park, but was that because of Peter de Villiers odd back row selection with no specialist openside? Richie McCaw will be a different proposition.
The home side will also be without Quade Cooper, banned for two matches for a dangerous tackle on Morne Steyn, and whilst Berrick Barnes isn’t a bad replacement, this is another dent to Australia’s chances of a first Bledisloe victory since 2008.
It’s tricky to see how the Wallabies will play the game: the All Black set-piece looks superior, their back row usually dominates the breakdown, and the backs are renowned for their broken-field play and counter-attacking prowess. Good luck Australia!
The Bledisloe Cup encounters are usually closer than New Zealand’s dominant record suggests, and the opening game is usually great to watch. I’m looking forward to the game as a neutral and predicting New Zealand by 8.