Henry wary of Wallaby revival
THIS is the Chinese Year of the Tiger and in Hong Kong tomorrow it is possible world rugby might glimpse an equally rare species -- an Australian win over New Zealand.
The All Blacks have won the last 10 matches between these countries, a sustained level of supremacy, dating back to 2008, that has never been seen before.
But there is a view that this Wallaby side is now making significant progress with the World Cup less than a year away. Thus, this final Bledisloe Cup match of the year, a precursor to both teams' northern hemisphere tours which begin next weekend, represents rather more than another money-spinning exercise.
On the evidence of the Tri Nations, Australia may be improving. Their problem is, so are the All Blacks, especially in adapting to the new law interpretations. Nevertheless, All Blacks coach Graham Henry insists his men won't be taking anything for granted in Hong Kong.
"There are never any dead rubbers between the All Blacks and the Wallabies, they're always big games," he said. "We have had a good winning run against the Wallabies but they have a huge desire to knock us off and you can see that in their eyes. It's going to be a hell of a big Test match."
Henry's innate caution is renowned, yet there are reasons for believing it won't be a straightforward stroll to victory No 11 for his team. For a start, out-half Dan Carter has not played a game for 10 weeks following ankle surgery, and is bound to be a bit rusty.
Also, there may be doubts as to whether the All Blacks can simply pick up from where they left off at the end of their all-conquering Tri Nations campaign.
Continuity and momentum are keys to any successful team's progress and the seven-week break won't help New Zealand's flow. Yet this squad seems to thrive on the challenges thrown in front of it.
Their poor Tri Nations of 2009 inspired them to find another gear this year, and they negotiated too the occasional injuries. The loss of scrum-half Piri Weepu for six months with a dislocated ankle does weaken them but such is the depth of Kiwi talent, others will inevitably step up.
And against that, the All Blacks are strengthened by the return of Jerome Kaino into the back row and Joe Rokocoko on the wing. Captain Richie McCaw will win his 90th cap.
Australian coach Robbie Deans was heartened by his side's improved Tri Nations form, even the 22-21 loss to the All Blacks in Sydney. And the return of tight-head prop Ben Alexander after a serious knee injury which has kept him out since June will further strengthen the side. Wing Drew Mitchell is also back after injury.
"We've re-established the back three that did so well for us in South Africa during the year," Deans said. "Continuity hasn't been common for us in recent times. But I think this is the first indication that we're starting to get some consistent time together as a group."
The game will offer northern hemisphere observers a valuable opportunity to assess the two countries' tactics in accommodating the new law interpretations ahead of their Test matches in Britain, Ireland and France next month.
NEW ZEALAND -- M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Rokocoko; D Carter, J Cowan; A Woodcock, K Mealamu, O Franks; B Thorn, T Donnelly; J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read. Reps: H Elliot, J Afoa, S Whitelock, D Braid, A Mathewson, S Donald, I Toeava.
AUSTRALIA -- K Beale; J O'Connor, A Ashley-Cooper, M Giteau, D Mitchell; Q Cooper, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander; M Chisholm, N Sharpe; R Elsom (capt), D Pocock, B McCalman. Reps: S Faingaa, J Slipper, D Mumm, R Brown, L Burgess, B Barnes, L Turner.
REF-- A Rolland (Ireland).
New Zealand v Australia,
Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 9.30am