NZPA - (10/09/2010)
Welcome milestones, unwanted records, a World Cup countdown and a devastating earthquake ensure the Tri-Nations rugby test between the All Blacks and Wallabies here tomorrow night is not a mundane rugby exercise.
The third trans-Tasman test of 2010 contains enough subplots to pique the interest despite trophies no longer being a motivating factor because the All Blacks have already secured the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations silverware.
Instead they are driven on several fronts. There is potential to become the first team to compete the Tri-Nations unbeaten since it increased to six matches per side in 2006 and extend their winning current winning sequence to 15, three short of little Lithuania's world record.
Another victory in Sydney -- the last venue they lost to Robbie Deans' Wallabies in 2008 -- will also condemn Australia to their worst trans-Tasman losing streak since 1936-47, 10 games and counting.
Throw in the usual fear of failure -- accentuated by a desire to please their struggling compatriots in Canterbury, post last weekend's earthquake -- plus a realisation the World Cup is less than a year away from starting and the pressure on the All Blacks is as acute as ever.
Richie McCaw, who collects another accolade when he overtakes Sean Fitzpatrick's record of 51 tests as All Blacks captain tomorrow, acknowledged all those distractions as they squad completed their preparations.
"It's always there," he said of the spectre of the World Cup, the only tournament that seemingly matters to New Zealand fans. In the back of your mind the goal is to be ready to play in 12 months time at your peak, that's what we're working towards."
The planning continues tomorrow (2200 start time NZT) when the All Blacks contemplate life temporarily without the injured Daniel Carter and discover if Aaron Cruden might be the long-term back-up plan if, heaven forbid, the world's premier first five-eighth is crocked 12 months from now.
The versatile Victor Vito earns his first start against the Wallabies as the coaching trio assess his merits as a future Chris Masoe, their utility loose forward in France four years ago, while Israel Dagg follows Cory Jane's career path from a specialist fullback to a run-on wing.
While the All Blacks have made five changes to the side who regained the Tri-Nations crown against South Africa in Soweto last month, Deans has understandably kept faith in the line-up that broke a 47-year hoodoo on the South African high veld in Bloemfontein last weekend, although not before giving the coach palpitations as they bombed a 31-6 lead.
The Wallabies eventually won 41-39 although history suggests it is not a good omen. Under Deans, Australia have a woeful record of racking up victories, with five in a row in 2008 representing a low benchmark.
Asked whether the squad had renewed belief after their heroics in Bloemfontein, Deans was guarded, aware his side had conceded 83 points in two tests against a Springboks side on the slide.
"I hope so, but we have to add some substance to it," he said."We've shown that promise previously. When you get up in games that are tenuous it does add to your core. The key now is to turn it into a habit."
Deans at least has the security of knowing his playmaker Quade Cooper has committed to the jersey until the end of the World Cup, a pleasing development today after the Tokoroa-born Queenslander's flirtation with the National Rugby League (NRL).
The match-up between Cooper, who plays his first Bledisloe Cup test after missing the matches in Melbourne and Christchurch through suspension, and the diminutive Cruden is an obvious focal point given their enterprising attack is offset by dubious defence.
It is no secret both sides will target their opposing first five-eighth's defensive channel although McCaw warned the All Blacks could not overplay their hand.
"If you get hell bent on attacking one area it's pretty easy for the opposition to shore that up and you forget about other areas," he said."You've got to have your balance dead right. If you do that then sometimes you can isolate guys that are not so good on defence."