The Rugby Championship - New Zealand Preview
All Blacks still set the benchmark
Jeff Wilson
August 15, 2013
Kieran Read might be the best player in the world right now. © Getty Images

Six weeks ago the world of All Blacks rugby was perfect. A comprehensive defeat of France, the introduction of new players, the return to form of some senior citizens, and a real confidence that All Blacks rugby was well and truly headed in the right direction. The All Blacks coaching staff had found ways to give new players a taste of the international game as well as asking some difficult questions looking into the future.

Analysis from ESPNscrum

  • Key Player: With senior players either returning from or planning sabbaticals, No.8 Kieran Read becomes the key plank for the All Blacks for the foreseeable future. He may not have quite the aura as Richie McCaw or Dan Carter just yet, but he'll finish his career on the same level of greatness, and his deeds on the field provide inspiration now. Arguably the best player in the world currently.
  • Rising Star: While McCaw's longevity in the All Blacks jersey is now carefully managed, so, too, is Sam Cane's introduction - and the Chiefs player was very good in the June internationals against France. Just as McCaw-Smith battles determined Bledisloes back in the day, so too will Cane-Hooper/Gill in the years to come.
  • Crunch Clash: All the Bledisloe clashes are vital for the Cup's long term residency in the New Zealand Rugby Union's trophy cabinet, but they'll want to win the first game this weekend in Sydney to keep the Wallabies at arm's length. But in the broader context of The Rugby Championship, the clash against the Springboks at Eden Park on September 14 could well decide if they keep the big SANZAR trophy, too.
  • Coaching Clinic: Steve Hanson is heading into an interesting time in his tenure, when he must walk the tightrope of looking after - and at times, doing without - his aging superstars, and introducing the next generation. Get the mix right, and he'll have one hand on the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2015. Get it wrong, and he'll have the population of New Zealand to deal with.
  • Verdict: Easy to see why they're firm favourites to hold onto both the Bledisloe Cup and The Rugby Championship. Even with McCaw only just back, and Ma'a Nonu in a bit of a state of flux, there's still the likes of Israel Dagg, Read, Liam Messam, one Whitelock, and probably three Smiths to deal with. And that bloke Carter, arguably in his best form in the past five years, when he returns from injury.
  • Odds: The All Blacks are at 1.30 the favourites for the southern hemisphere crown with Bet365

In the past six weeks, however, and particularly in the past few days, some things have changed. Injuries to Wyatt Crockett and Dan Carter, the non-selection of Piri Weepu, the absence of Dane Coles and the re-introduction of Richie McCaw mean the All Blacks enter The Rugby Championship without their best available for selection.

So the depth of All Blacks rugby and the trust in the old, and the new, is being tested. But there are some questions around this opening Test of the campaign.

Q: Can Richie McCaw be expected to be at his best early in The Rugby Championship?

A: Time and time again Richie McCaw has proven his greatness as a rugby player, not only for his ability to be consistently at a high level but also because he doesn't need to play every game for everybody. Expect Richie to be a factor, but not at his very best. If you have any doubts, history tells us you shouldn't.

Q: Can Aaron Cruden continue to deliver on the biggest stage?

A: Super Rugby has shown that Aaron Cruden is not waiting for the All Blacks jersey; he wants to make it his own. His performances against France showed the maturity in his game, the composure needed under pressure, and the desire to put pressure on the All Blacks selectors. Any good first five-eighths needs a platform in front of him, and the All Blacks will provide him every opportunity in these early Bledisloe encounters. If there is one concern, it is his goal-kicking form in recent times; not so much his success rate but the lack of rhythm in his technique. We all know tight Test matches can be won with goal-kicking. Expect a less than warm reception when Cruden lines up his first attempt in Sydney on Saturday night.

Q: Has the old guard of Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu got the legs to run with the Wallabies?

A: There's no doubt Ewen McKenzie will not be looking for a slow-paced, dour forward confrontation. Expect to see the Wallabies return to the expansive game, keeping the ball in hand, playing at a high tempo to put pressure on the senior citizens and to push them to their aerobic limits. Expect the All Blacks forward pack, which has great experience, to attack the Wallabies up front. These three players will see this as a great opportunity to prove their worth. Their experience in big games should not be under-estimated and I believe they will prove their worth in this first Test.

Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview Bledisloe I

Q: Will the new scrum engagement be a factor?

A: It is fair to say that world rugby has been searching for an answer to the shemozzle the scrum has become, especially with the number of resets. Everyone is venturing into the unknown. No players have any real experience with this new scrum engagement so expect difficulties early, but the pressure will be on referee Craig Joubert, possibly the world's best whistle-blower, to maintain control. With the shortening of the gap and less emphasis on the hit, this new technique may well assist the Wallabies forwards. If this is the case, the Wallabies might have a huge sigh of relief after being embarrassed by the British & Irish Lions in the third Test.

Q: Is The Rugby Championship now about the selection of the All Blacks or the way they play the game?

A: The All Blacks know the group of players they want to develop for the future: with the introduction of Steven Luatua, TJ Perenara, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Joe Moody, they know the individuals they believe have a big future in All Blacks rugby. The Dave Gallaher Trophy series against France confirmed those players' credentials so expect to see the All Blacks selectors put these players to the test. With a new era of Australian rugby, the changing face of South African rugby and the unknown with the Pumas in Argentina, the championship presents a great opportunity to test the possible new game plan and adaptability of their new players.

Q: Are the All Blacks in danger of becoming predictable?

A: There's no doubt the All Blacks have a structure and simplicity about their game. The experts often say the All Blacks do everything just a little bit better. But does that mean they aren't perfecting their own brand of football? Is having the ability to adapt a curse, or does it present the opportunity to negate the opposition's strengths? If I look at this side, it may be a case of defence being the best form of attack. With the attacking threats the All Blacks have on the field, we may see some greater risk for reward.

It's a pretty simple equation, though: the All Blacks are still the team to beat. In recent times, their consistency and their ability to perform under pressure has been unquestionable, and the All Blacks environment looks more settled than ever.

Follow live text commentary of the Bledisloe Cup Test between Australia and New Zealand on Saturday, August 17, from 730pm (AEST), 930pm (NZT), 930am (GMT)

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