Wallabies vs All Blacks more than the result on the field

AP
The Wallabies will test the depth of the crisis affecting Australian rugby when they play New Zealand in a Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match on Saturday.
AP
Reuters

New Zealand All Blacks' Sonny Bill Williams passes the ball during a training session in Sydney on August 17, 2017, ahead of the first Rugby Championship and Bledisoe Cup match against Australia on August 19.

The Wallabies will test the depth of the crisis affecting Australian rugby when they play New Zealand in a Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match on Saturday.

The sport in Australia is in disarray on and off the field as the Australian Rugby Union contends with legal action over a decision to cut the Perth-based Western Force from Super Rugby after a season in which the performance of Australia's five Super Rugby teams reached an embarrassing low.

Saturday's match will determine whether fallout from the ARU's handling of the Force saga has penetrated the Wallabies camp, and whether poor form in Super Rugby affects the performance of the national team.

Australian teams lost all 26 matches against New Zealand opponents during the Super Rugby season, making the Wallabies significant underdogs on Saturday.

The All Blacks, however, are not without their problems. The world champions are coming off a drawn three-test series against the British and Irish Lions in which they failed to live up to their billing as favorites.

The Lions exposed substantial weaknesses in the All Blacks' game, both tactical and practical, and New Zealand's belief in its depth was dented when injuries and suspensions forced it to draw substantially on its second string.

Flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who carved out a reputation as one of the best players in world rugby for his skillful and unflustered performances at the start of his career, looked harried and uncertain when placed under consistent pressure by the Lions. The Wallabies are likely to place him under similar scrutiny.

The All Blacks also anticipated the Lions' intention to test them with high kicks and a strong kick-chase but weren't equal to it. Their back three, which changed throughout the series, was poor under the high ball and the Wallabies will have taken that lesson and will test their new-look back-three on Saturday.

New Zealand has named the pint-sized Damian McKenzie at fullback, moved fullback Ben Smith to the wing and recalled young winger Rieko Ioane in what seems at best a makeshift back three.

Sonny Bill Williams has returned to the All Blacks starting lineup after the four-match suspension he received for a savage shoulder charge on Lions winger Anthony Watson in the second test. His presence weakens the All Blacks defense and likely damages any possibility of fluent attacking play.

The Wallabies also have a renovated backline in which former league star Curtis Rona will play his first test match and Kurtley Beale will start a test for the first time at inside center. Beale is a genuine match-winner but his 60-test career, extended for the first time since the 2015 World Cup final at Twickenham, has been so full of injuries and incident that no one can be sure how he will perform.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is confident his side will rise above the turmoil.

"I think if there's anything that could keep you focused when something like this happens, it's the quest for winning the Bledisloe Cup," he said on Thursday. "I think from what I've seen of all our lads and the Western Force guys in particular, they've come in with a real focus on preparing themselves.

"I am not saying it is going to be easy. The target needs to be to put New Zealand under pressure, not necessarily to go out there and win. Then we will see what happens from there, we'll see if we can take the pickings."

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said his team must improve on its performance in the Lions series.

"Does coming off a draw put people's bums to the front of the seat rather than the back of it? Yeah, it does," Hansen said. "We're disappointed with how things went — we wanted more.

"It will make the Rugby Championship into one with a stronger feeling for us and one that we want to show how good we can play. And we probably didn't do that during the Lions series."


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