x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pressure is on champions New Zealand

There is spreading pessimism as New Zealand prepare to begin their defence of two trophies this weekend against Australia.

AUCKLAND // Anxiety levels have risen to a high. There is spreading pessimism as New Zealand prepare to begin their defence of two trophies this weekend against Australia. That incongruous landscape surrounds an All Blacks record which shows four Tri Nations titles in the five seasons coach Graham Henry has led the side, the Bledisloe

Cup for trans-Tasman supremacy backed by his teams' 86 per cent success rate. And still the nation squirms. Why? It is partly explained by New Zealanders' natural introspection and a caution about momentous rugby events like World Cups where the nation has felt just one triumph in six attempts. Henry and his coaching crew have just been reappointed to guide the side to the 2011 World Cup so it would seem likely a more settled mood would hover around the All Blacks as they eye their Eden Park challenge.

That theory remains but there are a few other hostile issues gnawing at the All Black psyche. The Wallabies have a settled side, a side who have marched to four straight wins to open their season while the All Blacks have spluttered to two wins and a soggy defeat. The visitors are also coached by Robbie Deans, the man half of New Zealand felt should have been appointed All Black coach when Henry asked the nation to judge him on the 2007 World Cup.

That ended in a quarter-final defeat against France, the worst All Black result in their World Cup history, yet Henry and his cronies were re-elected. How come? The short answer was that Henry outmanoeuvred Deans politically, his allies on the New Zealand Rugby Union were too strong. Deans has arrived this week with 12 of last year's team and a side bubbling to a peak. The All Blacks, meanwhile, have spent most of the last week scrabbling around to find a fit first five eighths and then reintroducing another six players who have seen little duty in June because of injury.

There is no doubting the players' pedigree but they have had little time to gel. Captain Richie McCaw has been out since late May with a knee injury, Sitiveni Sivivatu has suffered the same leave because of a shoulder injury and Rodney So'oialo to rehab some neck damage. Conrad Smith's muscle troubles produced an interrupted June schedule, Stephen Donald has only just recovered from a hamstring strain to play at five eighths while front rowers Neemia Tialata and Andrew Hore are back in harness after time out.

On paper, the All Blacks are the strongest they have been all season, in practice there are doubts about their firepower because of their lack of match practice. But McCaw is the talisman, the openside flanker the team and the nation depends on. When he has worn his black jersey in 70 Tests, he has only been on the losing side seven times. His impact is significant. He had time out last year when he damaged an ankle. In his absence the All Blacks lost at home to the Springboks and were then well beaten by the Wallabies in Sydney.

The Wallabies then travelled to Eden Park confident they could win successive Tests but McCaw's return and influence sent them packing 39-10. McCaw returns again after a long break to repair a knee and will duel with George Smith who becomes the fourth Wallaby and just the 10th player in the history of the game to play 100 Tests. The Wallabies profess they learned many lessons last year and return with a side shorn of just three players from last year's disappointment.

Deans has learned a great deal more about his men, he has pruned a few from the squad and added some exciting talent. Previous Wallaby sides have made similar progress but since 1986, have not been able to win at Eden Park. No victory at Eden Park since the first of six World Cups. That drought makes George Gregan's "four more years" taunt to an All Black after one World Cup failure look mild.

wgray@thenational.ae