Crunch time for Wallabies and All Blacks

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SYDNEY, August 20- The Wallabies and the All Blacks walk the plank in Saturday's Test here with the loser virtually surrendering any hope of winning this year's Tri-Nations series.ALL_BLACKS_Australia, at the bottom of the standings on one point, and New Zealand (4) both returned win-less from South Africa this month with the world champion Springboks (12) in the ascendancy and on target to win their first southern hemisphere championship since 2004.

Pressure is building on both camps ahead of their Sydney encounter with patience wearing thin on the under-achieving Wallabies and the All Blacks fearing the prospect of losing a fourth international this year.

Indisciplined defeats for the All Blacks (22-16 in Auckland) and Springboks (29-17 in Cape Town) have prompted suggestions that the honeymoon period for the Wallabies’ first foreign coach, Robbie Deans, is over.

There have been grumblings that the early optimism in Deans has been misplaced after his one and a half seasons in charge of the Wallabies.

Against the world number two All Blacks, the third-rated Wallabies under Deans have one win from five meetings, while against the top-ranked Springboks it’s two wins from four.

The Australians’ last Tri-Nations series triumph was in 2001.

There have been questions posed about the Wallabies’ indiscipline with three players sin-binned in their last match, in which they lost to South Africa, and a perception that the Australians are mentally fragile in the decisive phases of matches.

The All Blacks, bidding for their fifth consecutive Tri-Nations’ title, also have their detractors after back-to-back losses to the Springboks in Bloemfontein and Durban, with coach Graham Henry’s game tactics under fire from critics.

Should New Zealand go down on Saturday they will be just one loss away from the 1998 All Blacks’ low point since rugby went professional in 1996 of five losses in one season.

The All Blacks also lost to France, 27-22 in Dunedin, at the start of the season.

But both trans-Tasman rivals have key players returning from injury for their 158th encounter.

The Wallabies, who will be led by openside flanker George Smith in place of the injured Stirling Mortlock, welcome back blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, who last played for the Barbarians against England at Twickenham on May 31.

Elsom, who was man of the match for Ireland’s Leinster in the European Cup final, has recovered from bone bruising in his knee.

The Kiwis are buoyed by the return of champion flyhalf Dan Carter, who has missed New Zealand’s last six Tests with an Achilles injury he suffered playing club rugby in France.

Carter, who so often has proved the bane of the Wallabies with his goal kicking, is just 26 points shy of fellow Kiwi Andrew Mehrtens’ Tri-Nations’ point-scoring record of 338.

The All Blacks historically hold the wood over the Wallabies, with 107 wins to 45 losses and five draws, but the Green and Gold usually produce their best efforts at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

In nine Test matches there, the Wallabies have won six, including their biggest-ever winning score, 34-19, in last year’s corresponding match.

The Wallabies, who also have the added incentive of keeping alive the four-match Bledisloe Cup series after losing the opening game, have been working on preventing further second-half fade-outs against New Zealand.

"When you look at this weekend’s game, it’s just about making sure there’s no lapse in concentration there and we play out the full 80 minutes," Elsom said. "If we don’t do that it’s going to be very tough for us."

The All Blacks have also had their period of soul-searching since their 31-19 loss to the Springboks in Durban three weeks ago.

"I don’t think our players have all of a sudden become unskilled," assistant coach Wayne Smith said.

"We’ve scored over 250 Test tries in the last five years, so you don’t all of a sudden lose that. We’ll get it back, but it won’t come back without work and developing these guys’ teamwork together."

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