Rising Australia hope to expose Carter absence
The small matter of the Lions tour now out of the way (in southern hemisphere eyes, at least), the spotlight now turns onto the 2009 Tri-Nations, starting in Auckland tomorrow.
New Zealand against Australia is to the first match of a new Tri-Nations campaign, what Liverpool v Manchester United would represent on the opening day of a Premier League season.
New Zealand bring some intimidating artillery to this contest. They have been Tri-Nations champions for four successive years, have won 57 of 66 matches under Graham Henry's tutelage and have won the Bledisloe Cup against Australia five successive times.
So, no contest then, especially given the fact that the All Blacks overran their traditional foes 39-10 in the corresponding fixture last year and have not been beaten at Eden Park in 19 Tests, dating back to 1994?
Well, not exactly. Only fools would ever suggest the wheels are coming off the All Blacks machine. But having to do without key forwards such as Carl Hayman, Ali Williams, Greg Somerville and Chris Jack has weakened them, with Williams a particularly big loss.
But their greatest problem is the absence of fly-half Dan Carter, still recovering from the Achilles injury he suffered at the end of January. Carter might be back for the second half of the Tri-Nations, but it is not certain.
However, the Kiwis will welcome back influential captain Richie McCaw, for his 200th game and 71st Test, plus No 8 Rodney So'oialo, in Auckland this weekend. McCaw will be up against his old rival George Smith, who will be playing his 100th Test match for Australia.
Stephen Donald has passed an injury test to re-claim his place as Carter's deputy, but he must show far greater authority in his game if the All Blacks are to make it five titles in a row.
Australia are an improving side, increasingly well prepared and finely honed, especially in a defensive sense, by Kiwi coach Robbie Deans, and, if they have developed as much as some claim, they may be genuine title contenders.
NEW ZEALAND -- M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, S Sivivatu; S Donald, J Cowan; A Woodcock, A Hore, N Tialata, B Thorn, I Ross, J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), R So'oialo.
AUSTRALIA -- A Ashley-Cooper; L Turner, S Mortlock (capt), B Barnes, D Mitchell; M Giteau, L Burgess; B Robinson, S Moore, A Baxter, J Horwill, N Sharpe, R Brown, G Smith, W Palu.
REF -- C Joubert (South Africa)
New Zealand v Australia,
Live, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 8.30am