Wallabies, All Blacks meet in Japan with World Cup in mind
Less than a year from the Rugby World Cup and at one of its prime venues, the New Zealand All Blacks and the Wallabies will meet in a Bledisloe Cup test which holds more importance than its so-called "dead rubber" status implies.
New Zealand locked away the trophy for the 16th-straight year when it won the first two tests against Australia, making Saturday's test in Yokohama irrelevant to the series. But other imperatives have come into play, not least the function of the match in measuring the teams' respective states of readiness 11 months from the start of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The All Blacks are clearly in a strong position as reigning champions and as the world's top-ranked team, having won all but one of their nine tests this season. The All Blacks haven't been in vintage form but have had to contend with serious injuries which have allowed them to exhibit and increase the depth that underpins their top ranking.
Conversely, the Wallabies are approaching the World Cup in a weakened state, having won only two of nine tests this season and having dropped to No. 7, their lowest-ever world ranking. Their lack of depth at times has been cruelly exposed and they have had to cope with a chorus of criticism over the performance of abrasive head coach Michael Cheika.
The All Blacks won the previous tests between the teams this season 38-13 and 40-12 but were less impressive in more recent tests against South Africa, losing the first by two points and winning the second by the same margin against the Springboks.
They had to come from behind to do so, just as the Wallabies had to come from behind in their most recent test to avoid back-to-back losses to Argentina.
The All Blacks are expected to win in Yokohama as preparation for challenges next month when they play England and Ireland. However, head coach Steve Hansen has counseled caution, arguing the Wallabies will likely be energized by their remarkable win over the Pumas.
"As a group of people Aussies have a lot of self-confidence and I would rather have that than a weakness which allows you to self-doubt," Hansen said. "They can lose five, six, seven games in a row and come out and beat the best team in the world because they believe they can.
"There is definitely a mark of respect from our guys. We know we love playing them and I think they love playing us. We love beating them and they love beating us. It is a one-off game and winner takes all so, whoever does win it, gets to have an easier summer than the blokes who don't."
The Wallabies' win over Argentina lifted some of the pressure on Cheika, or at least subdued speculation that his position is not secure. A loss to the All Blacks, perhaps already expected by most Australian fans, would likely not further weaken his position.
But Hansen offered a word of sympathy and support for his rival coach who has seldom enjoyed universal support from Wallabies fans after his initial success in guiding Australia in the World Cup final in 2015.
"It's not for me to say what's right for Australian rugby but what I do know is that continuity has been proven over and over and over again to be a pretty good recipe," he said, pointing to the distinguished career of long-time Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson.
"I just think sometimes we pull the trigger too quickly on the coach and sometimes I guess it is warranted but most of the time I don't think it is," Hansen said. "I think it's a good thing they've given the players a platform that's secure because they know the coach is secure. Once that happens people can get on and do what they have to do."