All Blacks, Wallabies in dance of the desperates

With the Tri-Nations title beyond reach, Saturday’s championship finale here between the All Blacks and Wallabies has become a desperate battle to avoid the ignominy of finishing last.

“The points table is not relevant. It’s pride and honour,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said on the eve of the match.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw urged his side to shut out the pressure.

“You can’t let that get on top of you. That’s the big thing.
You have to keep the belief in what you are doing,” McCaw said.

The aura of invincibility that generally surrounds the All Blacks has been shattered this year as New Zealand yielded their world number one ranking to South Africa and are perilously close to slipping to third behind Australia.

When they were beaten 29-32 by the Springboks last week, the All Blacks lost a Tri-Nations crown that they had held for the past four years.

If they lose their final game to Australia it will be the first time ever New Zealand has lost three home Tests in a season, having been beaten by France earlier in the year.

A headline in the New Zealand Herald, the country’s main daily newspaper, succinctly captured the thoughts of the nation: “World rugby critics: the All Blacks have lost their mojo”.

Historically, the odds favour the All Blacks winning on Saturday, having won the past five Tests between the trans-Tasman rivals and having not lost at home to Australia since 2001.

The Wallabies also sense they will face a backlash from an All Blacks side fuming because of the constant criticism they have endured in New Zealand since South Africa became the undisputed southern hemisphere rugby powerhouse.

“There will be a response from the All Blacks. As history shows, whenever they’re under pressure they respond,” Deans said.

“They’ll be totally resolute. They’ll be desperate to get a result.”

But Australia also have reason to feel they can snatch a win after beating South Africa 21-6 in their last outing two weeks ago.

“We are hopeful,” Deans said. “Our history isn’t that great in New Zealand but the thing you get with a young group is they’re not burdened by the past.

“We as a group are trending better. We got confirmation of that two weeks ago and we don’t want that to dissipate.”

At the other end of town, in the New Zealand bunker, McCaw was looking for the positives in what is shaping up to be one of the All Blacks’ worst years.

“You have to take the good things forward that you are doing. You have to keep the belief. You have to keep working at what you do,” he said.

“That’s what it’s like in sport. When you come second it’s about how you react to it. Saturday we are lucky to get a chance to have another crack and after a result like last week the boys are eager to get back out on the field and put it right.”

Australia have a reputation for leading early against the All Blacks and then buckling in the closing stages.

In their two previous Tri-Nations Tests this year, the All Blacks came back from a nine-point deficit to win 22-16 in Auckland and then came from 10-points behind to win 19-18 in Sydney.

But they believe their ability to get in front of the Springboks and stay there in their last match has given them a new focus. Deans has kept the same side to play the All Blacks, who have made five changes.

“The Springboks was a good win and a confidence boost,” said Australian captain George Smith, the only survivor from the last Wallabies team win in New Zealand eight years ago.—AFP

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