PREVIEW-Rugby-Australia face usual Bledisloe demons against All Blacks
Australia's battle for credibility in front of sceptical home fans will reach a crescendo in Melbourne on Thursday where their quest for two pieces of coveted silverware could unravel against the All Blacks. Defeat at Docklands stadium would ensure the Bledisloe Cup remains in New Zealand hands for a 20th year in succession and could also eliminate the Wallabies from the Rugby Championship race.
Australia's battle for credibility in front of sceptical home fans will reach a crescendo in Melbourne on Thursday where their quest for two pieces of coveted silverware could unravel against the All Blacks.
Defeat at Docklands stadium would ensure the Bledisloe Cup remains in New Zealand hands for a 20th year in succession and could also eliminate the Wallabies from the Rugby Championship race. A year out from the World Cup in France, the home side desperately need a performance to rally support.
Languishing at a record low of eighth in the world rankings after a morale-crushing 24-8 loss to South Africa in Sydney, patience is wearing thin with their form under Dave Rennie. The match's weeknight scheduling already speaks volumes of the Wallabies' diminished standing in a sports-mad country.
Even in a city in thrall to Australian Rules football, a Bledisloe Cup clash would once draw massive crowds to the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground on a weekend. On Thursday, Wallabies fans could well be outnumbered by Kiwis in the crowd at the 53,000-seat Docklands.
The All Blacks have had their own struggles, losing to both South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, and are still yet to win back-to-back tests this season. However, they returned to their ruthless best in a 53-3 hiding of the Pumas in Hamilton in their last outing and bring a settled lineup to Docklands.
To win back the Bledisloe Cup, Australia must beat the All Blacks in Melbourne and then somehow stave off defeat at Eden Park where the hosts have not lost since France in 1994. "History tells us they're a pretty hard team to beat," Wallabies prop James Slipper, who will again stand in as captain for the absent Michael Hooper, told reporters on Wednesday.
"They've had the wood on us for 20 years so us as a playing group, we understand what's coming and it's going to be a hard task to win the Bledisloe and it starts tomorrow here." Their task has been made harder by injuries, with Rennie reaching for the long-forgotten Bernard Foley to start at flyhalf in his first test since the 2019 World Cup.
With New Zealand's powerhouse number eight Ardie Savea excused from the test for the birth of his third child, Rennie will hope his re-jigged back row of Rob Valetini, Rob Leota and Pete Samu can outmuscle the All Blacks at the breakdown. Defending champions New Zealand lead the Rugby Championship on 10 points, one ahead of the rest, but all four teams can still win the trophy.
A bonus-point victory at Docklands would go a long way to securing back-to-back titles for the All Blacks, however, and could also eliminate Australia if the home side fails to pick up a bonus point in defeat. "We feel we're getting there," said All Blacks coach Ian Foster, adding that he was looking for his side to "build a bit more consistency".
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