All Blacks centre Conrad Smith is out of tomorrow’s Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney after returning home for the birth of his first child.
Smith will join wife Lee-Ann in Wellington, with Canterbury midfielder Ryan Crotty called in as cover and likely to start from the bench. Malakai Fekitoa is expected to take Smith’s spot at centre outside Ma’a Nonu.
Losing Smith, the 32-year-old 77-test veteran, is a major blow for the All Blacks backline. He’s been the consistent rock in the midfield; his communication, organisation and defence are invaluable assets, particularly with Wallabies opposite Adam Ashley-Cooper in career-best touch.
Fekitoa has been the find of the year for New Zealand rugby. His pace and strength was a key factor in the Highlanders’ revival.
The 22-year-old played two tests against England in June – making a solid fist of a maiden start in the third test in Hamilton, also outside Nonu.
There are, however, question marks about similarities between the pair and whether they can form a successful long-term partnership. Balance is especially important in any midfield combination.
The All Blacks have dealt with these situations before.
Last year, Liam Messam was a late injury withdrawal from the Sydney test with Steven Luatua stepping up at blindside flanker in his absence.
The All Blacks selectors will back Fekitoa, and Crotty if needed, to fulfil a similar role in their quest for a tier-one world record 18th test win.
All Black captain Richie McCaw has posted more wins against the Wallabies than the entire Australian team has enjoyed against New Zealand
The skipper has enjoyed 25 test wins against Australia since 2001. Add up the number of tests each of the Wallaby starting XV has been part of against the All Blacks and the total is just 14. The All Blacks in comparison have collectively won 136 Bledisloe tests. Their total losses sit at 21. Australia, despite having collectively played far fewer Bledisloe tests, have lost 70 times.
That statistic in itself paints the picture of how dominant the All Blacks have been in the last 12 years. There are seven of the All Black starting XV who have never lost to Australia. Ma’a Nonu has also enjoyed more individual wins against the Wallabies then they have collectively recorded against the All Blacks.
It was legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi who talked about winning and losing both being habitual and few rivalries over such a long period illustrate that theory as well.
There are seven Wallabies in their starting XV who have never beaten the All Blacks and another four who have only done it once.
That imbalance of victories explains to a large extent why the Wallabies are forever talking themselves up.
It’s not simply their way — their natural disposition to be confident — they need to believe it. They need some positive energy to deflect the cold, stark reality of the truth.
Their lack of success hurts and can be a cycle from which they struggle to escape.
All Blacks stick to Sydney Bledisloe preparation that has worked so successfully for them
It is the 70-hour hit-and-run Black Ops mission that has worked since 2008.
The All Blacks touched down in Sydney on Thursday night for their Bledisloe Cup campaign, driving straight out to Sydney Olympic Park, with a flight booked back to Auckland for Sunday afternoon.
The late arrival means the Kiwis will only spend approximately 70 hours in the country to defend the 83-year-old trophy.
New Zealand has not lost a Test in Sydney since 2008 – the year Robbie Deans took over as Wallabies coach – and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has continued with the aint-broke-don’t-fix-it routine.
“We get to train at home, it’s our own environment, it’s something the Super sides do,” Hansen said.
“The players are used to coming over late, it’s only a three-hour flight.”
“We’re just the small cousins across the ditch.”
Hansen said Australia had done themselves no favours by building up Saturday’s showdown at ANZ Stadium.
“They are putting themselves under pressure by [saying] it’s all about the Bledisloe Cup,” he said.
“They’re under a lot of pressure, which they’re putting themselves under, talking about having to win the Bledisloe Cup, they haven’t won the Bledisloe Cup, ‘this is our year’ – I find that interesting.”
“It’s no different to any other year. There’s two teams in the competition and one of them will win it and one of them will lose it, so they’ll look to run the ball and try to run us off our feet.”
Hansen brushed off suggestions that there was a new confidence permeating through Australian rugby after the Waratahs’ historic Super Rugby title victory a fortnight ago.
“They’re always confident,” Hansen said.
“They were confident last year, and the year before that.”
“They’re a confident group of people, and they’ve got every right to be confident; they’ve been playing well.”
But so are the All Blacks.
Since they won the World Cup in 2011, they have played 31 Tests for 29 wins, one draw against Australia, and just one loss, against England.
Now they are on the verge of breaking the all-time record for most successive wins, 18, by a tier-one nation.
“Every week there’s pressure on us to win, that’s what Test rugby is all about,” Hansen said.
“You’re expected to win, whether it’s one Test or 18 Tests or 25 Tests, the result that people want is the All Blacks to win from our point of view.”
“It’s no different for Australia I should imagine, but it’s about us getting our processes right so we can give ourselves a chance and the opportunity to win. That’s no different whether it’s 18, 20 or 100, or one.”
“It’s always nice to win, that’s what you start out as a team to achieve.”
“Every team is the same, you just want to play well enough to win.”
“You keep wanting to do that, but the reality is you won’t.”
“We’re no different to anyone else, somewhere along the line we’ll get beaten.”
“And we’ll have to go back and see why, and invariably it’s something you’ve done between Sunday to Friday you haven’t done that well enough.”
New Zealand will be without injured linchpin Dan Carter, but have two of the most capable back-ups in the world, Hansen noted.
“We haven’t had Dan Carter playing on a regular basis for a good 18 months,” he said.
“We’ve got two pretty handy guys there in Aaron Cruden and [Beauden] Barrett, and we’ll wait for Dan to come back and be fully fit and that will be great.”
“But in the meantime, these two guys are going good, so we’re pretty fortunate that we’ve got some talent.”
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw indicated he is out for revenge after being part of the Crusaders team beaten by NSW at the same ground in the recent final.
“Just from a personal point of view being here a couple of weeks ago for Super Rugby, to get a chance to come back and have a crack at the Bledisloe is pretty exciting,” McCaw said.
Wallabies say Bledisloe Cup is motivation enough
The potential for halting the All Blacks’ bid for a world record sequence of top tier test wins for a third time since 2010 has not registered with the Wallabies as they concentrate on ending 12 years of frustration by reclaiming the Bledisloe Cup.
Fittingly a giant inflatable model of the trophy dominated the backdrop to a pre-match promotion at Sydney’s Circular Quay as relative newcomers Nic White and Matt Toomua insisted that preventing the All Blacks’ 18th successive victory was not a motivating factor ahead of tomorrow night’s Rugby Championship opener at ANZ Stadium.
“I’m not really thinking about that at the moment,” said White, who made his debut off the bench as Will Genia’s replacement in this fixture against the All Blacks 12 months ago.
“The Cup is in the thought process a long way before their consecutive wins. For us, it’s about putting some pride back into the jersey and doing our best to win that Cup back.”
“You don’t need any more motivation than that big Bledisloe Cup,” he said, gazing at the rubberised version.
Toomua, a five-eighth who also started his test career in last year’s Sydney Bledisloe, was unaware the world champions were a win away from exceeding the achievements of the 1965-70 All Blacks and the 1997-98 Springboks.
“It’s clearly an impressive statistic but the very fact I’ve just found out about it (indicates) we haven’t spoken about it this week,” Toomua said.
However, it might be beneficial to revisit the dead rubber in Hong Kong in 2010 – where James O’Connor’s last-minute converted try ended the All Blacks’ winning streak at 15.
Two years later in Brisbane the Wallabies secured a 18-18 draw in Brisbane where the All Blacks were a Dan Carter dropped goal away from closing out a 17th straight victory with the final act of the match.
After all, those cliffhangers and the Wallabies’ most recent win over the All Blacks – the Tri-Nations-sealing triumph in Brisbane leading into the 2011 World Cup – indicate they are capable of upsetting their neighbours, even if the Bledisloe Cup has been unobtainable.
Toomua did concede New South Wales’ first State of Origin series win since 2005 and the Waratahs’ maiden Super Rugby title – which also played out at ANZ Stadium this season – was inspirational.
“I think it’s impressive what the New South Wales Origin team has done. They showed through preparation, through professionalism and a definite game plan that it is possible.”
“If you take those things out of it, you can definitely take that as motivation for sure.”
Meanwhile, Toomua’s apathy towards the All Blacks’ quest at history was mirrored when he downplayed the Wallabies current seven-test winning streak, a sequence that started in Italy last November.
“We failed to beat the All Blacks last year and South Africa as well, and England. They’re the three pinnacle teams, so you’ve got to have good performances against those teams.”
“There’s no use talking about how positive it is. We’ve got to do it on the park.”
White, meanwhile, was more optimistic, though not over confident – that enduring characteristic of Australian sportspeople.
The 13-test halfback described the mood as one of “cautious confidence”.
“You’ve got to be confident to play your best footy but, at the same time, know they’ve (All Blacks) got confidence in spades and they’ve got that confidence in the tough times in games and in the pressure moments,” he said.
“They’ll have that confidence to back their game plan and back their players, so I guess we have to match that and try to take it up a notch.”