Australia and New Zealand open the 2013 Rugby Championships in Sydney on Friday on the same pitch that just six weeks ago saw the hosts succumb to a 2-1 series defeat against the British & Irish Lions.
The visitors meanwhile head into the championships with just a solitary defeat in their previous 21 matches, 21-38 against England at Twickenham last December. It was their first loss since relinquishing the Tri Nations crown to Australia in 2011, for whom the next two years saw little joy, culminating in defeat to the Lions.
It was probably more emotionally draining rather than physical; winning the second Test and then losing the way they did
It is a predicament that former All Blacks’ fly-half Nick Evans thinks may toll mentally on Australia.
“The Australians have come off the back of a pretty tough and torrid Lions series. The way they played in the first Test pushed up the expectation that they might possibly win it, and after the second Test a lot of Australians thought they could go on and win the series.
“It was probably more emotionally draining rather than physical; winning the second Test and then losing the way they did.”
A first series victory for the British Lions in 16 years brought about inevitable changes in Australia, none more high profile than the sacking of coach, Robbie Deans.
In Ewen McKenzie, a former Australian prop and World Cup winner in 1991, the Australian hierarchy have opted for a coach determined to restore discipline to a squad that has gone AWOL on occasion. In the last of several controversies under Deans’ tenure, backs James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale were photographed at 3.50am in a fast-food restaurant just days before the second Lions Test.
Furthermore, it appears McKenzie will opt for a physical approach against New Zealand as Australia aim for a first Bledisloe Cup since 2002.
O’Connor reverts to the left wing, Western Force forward Hugh McMeniman starts at blindside flanker five years after his last Test and Jesse Mogg replaces the injured Beale at full-back.
Cruden for Carter
The team also includes five debutants: Scott Sio, Scott Fardy, Nic White and Tevita Kuridrani will start on the bench, while Matt Toomua has beaten Quade Cooper to the fly-half jersey, a clear sign of McKenzie’s intent.
However, for the 16-cap All Black Evans, it is not a tactic he believes will be successful: “I have seen teams try to do it before. The South Africans, naming just one, have been notorious for trying to outmuscle teams.”
“If you do not do it against the All Blacks you have got to have a pretty good ‘B’ game up your sleeve, because otherwise it could be a pretty hard day at the office if you do not match their physicality and I think the All Blacks will have too much in the backline.”
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The selection of Toomua at fly-half, over the attacking mystery Cooper is a decision which surprises Evans, but the Harlequin draws on his own experiences and has few qualms over the inclusion of Aaron Cruden in place of Dan Carter for New Zealand, who has been ruled out of the first two games with a calf injury.
“Because you do not play as much as you would like to, you have got to relish the opportunity to get on. I remember I just prepared myself to best of my ability so when I got my chance, whether that be 10 minutes or a start, I really made the most of it.
“As long as the forwards do their job and get you on the front foot, managing the game from 10 in an All Blacks’ jersey can be a pretty good and fun experience. Most of the decisions will be managed by others and you have to let Cruden bring his skill set to the game; attacking running, goal and positional kicking.
“I don’t think there will be as much pressure as say it was his first or second Test, where people would put the comparison between him and Carter. He has been around long enough.”
Pressure will be on flanker Steven Luatua though as he replaces Liam Messam, the Man of the Match in the Super Rugby final against the Brumbies has pulled out after sustaining an injury in training on Thursday. Luatua has played just 10 minutes of Test rugby, coming on as a replacement in the All Blacks’ 24-9 victory over France seven weeks ago.
However, with 167 caps between them, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read ensure Luatua is in experienced company in the back row.
Despite being short of full strength the New Zealand team still boasts 852 Test caps, a figure Evans thinks will prove too much for a fresh-faced Australia.
“Australia do have the ‘mystery’ card, but it does take time to get used to a new coach; both combinations and the way the coach wants to play the game.”
“It will not be as easy as some people think. It is never easy to go to Australia and win but I think the All Blacks will come away with it.”
Max Forsyth is a freelancer sports journalist – you can follow him on Twitter @maxforsyth91