New Zealand v Australia, Rugby World Cup Semi-Final, October 16
History counts for nothing
October 14, 2011
All Blacks coach Graham Henry and his Wallabies counterpart Robbie Deans will resume their rivalry at Eden Park on Sunday night © Getty Images
Kurtley Beale Robbie Deans Will Genia Sir Graham Henry Richie McCaw Ma'a Nonu David Pocock Piri Weepu
A battle between the world's top two ranked sides will play out at Auckland's Eden Park on Sunday night but it will not decide who lifts the Webb Ellis Cup.
The twists and turns of the 2011 Rugby World Cup have thrown New Zealand and Australia together at the semi-final stage but that does little to detract from what has the makings of a thrilling and era-defining clash. The southern hemisphere giants can boast a rivalry spanning 127 years but take away that wealth of rugby relics along and you are still left with a myriad of modern twists that offer plenty of reason to relish this fixture.
The latest chapter in this epic duel will be written on the field but the all-Kiwi coaching contest is the tastiest of subplots. All Blacks head coach Graham Henry is on a quest to deliver the sport's biggest prize to end 24 years of World Cup hurt and at the same time justify the highly-controversial decision to re-appoint him after his side's dramatic quarter-final exit at the 2007 World Cup. Plotting the All Blacks' downfall is Robbie Deans, New Zealand's most successful Super Rugby coach, who looked destined to take Henry's job only to be denied and subsequently driven across the Tasman into the arms of the Wallabies. Since that day, Deans has largely failed to make the New Zealand Rugby Union regret their decision but a Tri-Nations success earlier this year hinted the tide may have turned and nothing will say 'I told you so' better than a party-crashing victory for his side this weekend.
With the two sides so evenly balanced, having shared their two Test clashes this year, the focus inevitably falls on individual match-ups. The game offers a host of intriguing personal battles and while the best team will inevitably win, the performances of key individuals will be pivotal.
Taking centre stage is the latest tussle between All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and his opposite number David Pocock. These two players, along with South Africa's Heinrich Brussow, have set the bar for openside flankers in recent years and this showdown represents a final of sorts. Pocock, and others including Wales' Sam Warburton, have their sights set on McCaw's crown and a dominant display against South Africa in his side's quarter-final victory suggests the Wallabies' powerhouse is ready to usurp his rival. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact McCaw is nursing a foot injury that is limiting his input at training and is sure to factor in his performance. Pocock will pounce on any sign of weakness and comments from the All Blacks' coaching staff regarding what they saw as rather lenient handling of the breakdown during the Wallabies' victory over the Springboks, may be an attempt to shackle one man who has the ability to derail their World Cup campaign on his own.
A rivalry with fewer miles on the clock is that between fly-halves Aaron Cruden and Quade Cooper. The two faced off in Sydney a year or so ago in their only previous meeting - a game won narrowly by the All Blacks. Since then Cooper's career has rocketed skywards while Cruden has been left on the fringes of the international set-up. No-one would have predicted this scenario on such a stage with Dan Carter the man supposed to pull the All Blacks' strings but injury has reduced him and his replacement Colin Slade to spectators.
Cooper would normally be expected to exploit this fact but the Kiwi-born playmaker has struggled for form just when it mattered most. And that fact, along with Cruden's relatively recent introduction, may see the respective scrum-halves have a greater say in proceedings.
Both New Zealand's Piri Weepu and Australia's Will Genia have offered a steadying hand in the past few weeks and more of the same will be demanded in heat of the semi-final. Weepu has stepped up in more ways than one. By no means guaranteed the All Blacks' No.9 shirt coming into the tournament, he has delivered and can lay claim to being his side's most valuable player in the tournament to date. He has ably filled the void left by Carter, bagging a match-winning 21 points with the boot against Argentina in the quarter-finals while also giving his side direction with a varied kicking and passing game. His experience and composure also make him the key decision maker in the All Blacks' talent heavy back division and off the field having dragged team-mates Cory Jane and Israel Dagg back from an infamous night out last week.
Genia's influence is just as crucial. Long heralded as the heartbeat of Deans' free-running side, his ability to keep the Wallabies moving is vital especially with Cooper seemingly struggling to find his best game. At 23-years-old he may not have the same level of experience as Weepu but big match composure leaps off his CV with a try against the All Blacks in Brisbane earlier this year and along with a memorable Super Rugby final triumph.
Elsewhere, a brutal battle awaits up front where the Wallabies will back themselves to hold their own having weathered a monumental onslaught from the Boks. But the All Blacks pack a similar punch and will be keen to stamp their authority on the game early and a ferocious opening is on the cards. Game breakers abound on either side making that initial foothold all the more important. Ma'a Nonu's return to top form in the All Blacks' midfield makes him a lively threat while the Wallabies' hopes will take a significant blow should the dancing feet of injury concern Kurtley Beale not line up at fullback.
Much has been made of history repeating itself in this year's World Cup with the same semi-finalists, although different match-ups, to the 1987 tournament eventually won by New Zealand. Similarly, the All Blacks' proud record at Eden Park, where they have not lost since 1994 and not to Australia since 1986, is, by many accounts, further reason to hope for a repeat win for the hosts. But many of those who take to the field on Sunday night were not even born then and more likely to be found in front of an Xbox rather than a history book. Make no mistake, this game is about the here and now.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.