Maintaining two decades of dominance to retain the treasured Bledisloe Cup appears, in theory at least, vastly more achievable than other treacherous challenges the All Blacks have confronted this season. In fact, given that legacy of sustained success, failing to lock away the Bled would see the walls cave in, and the widespread demands for change resurface to the same degree as prior to Ian Foster’s retention as All Blacks head coach last month.
Scaling summits has not been the All Blacks’ forte in recent times. A one-from-six record following dual losses to finish last year’s northern tour and a 2-1 defeat to Ireland in July, the first home series loss in 28 years, sparked fever-pitch frustration that left Foster on the brink of being removed from his post. Amid mounting criticism, the All Blacks blocked out the outside world and embraced a siege mentality in South Africa.
Against all odds after losing the first Test in Mbombela, the All Blacks rallied to deliver an inspired upset triumph at Ellis Park that, combined with further changes to the coaching team and strong support from his senior players, saved Foster to ensure he will lead the team through to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. After successive home assignments against Michael Cheika’s Pumas, the All Blacks turn their attention to an abbreviated two-Test Bledisloe Cup contest with the injury-depleted Wallabies. Foster’s All Blacks have twice secured the coveted Bledisloe in three-match series – boasting a five-win, one draw, one loss record in that time.
“For Rugby Australia, going back to two Tests financially is a big blow,” Paul says. “Having two Bledisloe Cup games in Australia is so beneficial to where the code is at, particularly with lower broadcast and sponsorship deals. “From a playing perspective, you have to win two games. It would be easier to do that at home but when you win the Bledisloe, you want to try and do that in New Zealand.
Winning there is one of the holy grails of rugby in Australia. To feel like you deserve the Bledisloe you have to win in New Zealand.” Retaining the Bledisloe has proved to be a rare highlight of late for the All Blacks. After the home series loss to Ireland, where the All Blacks grew progressively worse following their opening Eden Park victory, Foster belatedly sacked assistant coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar. Both Plumtree and Mooar received damning player-led feedback after last year’s northern tour, yet Foster opted to retain their services for the Ireland series, only to then backflip on that decision as pressure intensified on his position. That belated drastic action spoke to the rising tide of unshakeable scrutiny on the All Blacks’ coaching team.
Jason Ryan’s promotion – after six impressive years alongside Scott Robertson at the Crusaders – to national forwards coach delivered immediate improvements. While the All Blacks suffered their largest defeat in 94 years in South Africa in Ryan’s first Test as forwards coach, the vastly improved maul defence against the Springboks proved his transformational value in the space of two weeks.
The following week at Ellis Park, the All Blacks’ lineout, ball carrying and cleanout work were their best of Foster’s tenure. Those areas laid the platform for an unrecognisable attacking display orchestrated by Richie Mo’unga’s promotion to No 10. Joe Schmidt’s involvement is another key ingredient. Originally appointed as a selection and backroom analyst after the Irish series, Schmidt has since assumed a vastly expanded fulltime role in charge of leading the attack.
In his first week in this reshaped handson role (during the All Blacks’ preparations for the Pumas in Christchurch), the widely respected former Irish mentor wasted no time holding classroom sessions and leading vocal drills around deceptive passing skills at the line. While the All Blacks have endured their share of change and form issues in recent times, Dave Rennie’s Wallabies are also battling adversity after their three leading players were sidelined – two of those for the remainder of the year.
First world-class second five Samu Kerevi, arguably Australia’s most influential talent of late, suffered an ACL injury while at peak fitness playing for the sevens team at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Reborn playmaker Quade Cooper ruptured his Achilles tendon in Argentina, ruling him out for the season to spark a first five depth crisis.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper was another major withdrawal prior to the first Pumas Test in Argentina, due to personal reasons that have since been attributed to the burden he has assumed in leading the national team through difficult times. With no time frame put on Hooper’s return, the Wallabies remain without their talisman.
Rennie also lost reliable fullback Tom Banks to a broken arm during the Wallabies’ 2-1 series loss to England, which has forced regular backline reshuffles. Losing that backbone, their spine and direction, hit the Wallabies hard. “Hooper is such an inspirational leader,” Paul says. “You get captains who lead through actions and others who lead through decision-making. Michael Hooper is a bit of both. “Injuries can build resolve within a squad and give other players an opportunity to have a crack, but when you lose critical senior players like that, and when you don’t have the depth of New Zealand and South African rugby, you are going to struggle.”
Cooper’s absence has seen Rennie axe James O’Connor and instead recall Bernard Foley after his three-year absence from the Test arena. Following their record 48-17 loss to the Pumas in Argentina, Rennie sacked long-time Wallabies defence coach Matt Taylor and replaced him with experienced Brumbies forwards guru Laurie Fisher, a man renowned for his technical nous at the breakdown and in the contact work. Such a volatile backdrop paints an intriguing picture for looming Bledisloe Cup duels in Melbourne – on a Thursday night due to stadium availability around the NRL and AFL finals – and Eden Park, where the Wallabies’ drought extends well beyond the Bledisloe Cup to 1986. While Paul believes the core of the Wallabies pack – based around Darcy Swain, Jed Holloway, Taniela Tupou and Rob Valetini – can challenge the All Blacks, he admits that wresting back the Bledisloe remains a daunting prospect.
“You’ve never seen any sport with expectation or pressure on a team like the All Blacks. Ian Foster is almost like an English Premier League manager, where you’re sacked after three days. “Going into a system like that, where such wonderful success is demanded, that pressure is normal. That game at Ellis Park, the confidence and trust players had within each other to play what was in front of them, no matter where they were on the field, was very evident.
“In those five losses we saw the blueprint of how to beat the All Blacks, and that’s continual pressure to where they crack. That was one of the shining lights of the Ellis Park win. They were under pressure but they went to their strengths. “My heart will always say the Wallabies. I’m a hopeless romantic, an eternal optimist. I’ll always feel we’ve a chance. But when you use your head, it’s going to be one of the biggest uphill battles that we’ve faced in numerous years. If they can play at their best, they will be a chance, but if they don’t have those leading players on the field it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
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