May 28, 2018

All Blacks v Wallabies in Hong Kong – Preview

Tragedy from the past. If Conrad Smith gets his crown jewels ripped off by the Wallabies again, there will be no Sonny Bill Williams coming off the bench to bash the Aussies.

Both the All Blacks and the Wallabies have gone for experience and reputation over form and match fitness for tomorrows Rugby International in Hong Kong.

Any Test match between Australia and New Zealand is an intense affair, but this one is lacking the egde that is normally there.

It has been six weeks since these sides played the one point thriller in Sydney. The Bledisloe Cup is safely locked away in the NZRU trophy cabinet.

Ticket sales for Hong Kong Stadium are slow. Of course that is nothing to do with NZRU getting greedy in recent seasons and cheapening the exclusivity of the All Blacks by over supply and over pricing.

So all this adds up to a meaningless Test Match. It will be meaningless right up to the point of kick-off then it will be all on. A war of attrition.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry has picked his most experienced line-up. Dan Carter, Isaia Toeava and Corey Jane have not been playing at all. But Henry, Hansen and Smith obviously think that they need to get some game time on the board before the Grand Slam Tests.

The All Blacks have the edge on Australia in both average age (NZ 28, AUS 25) and Test caps (NZ 50, AUS 39). The jury is out if all that age and experience will be an asset in hot humid Hong Kong.

Much of the pre-match banter has been around Sonny Bill Williams. Henry has left him out of the playing 22 for this match much to the disappointment of the Aussie media.

Henry talked about Williams inexperience at Test level and not wanting to “throw him in at the deep end”. Williams however has had two seasons playing Rugby Union in France and was a standout player when he eventually took the field for Canterbury in the ITM Cup. Anyone who has played Test match Rugby League and NRL Finals footie is good enough to cope with Test Rugby.

The All Blacks coaches comment that “We think he [Williams] needs a little bit of time to get accustomed to what we’re trying to do out there.” Well I thought it was a simple game. Get the ball across their try line. If they come at you with the ball smash them. Sonny Bill understands these concepts.

He might not be playing against Australia but Sonny Bill Williams will come home a rugby super-star. Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland will have trouble coping with his size, strength and speed. I am not a fan of Sonny Bills manager or the way he walked out on the Canterbury Bulldogs but there is no denying his sporting talent.

The one big thing that bothers me about the All Blacks build up is Graham Henry harping on about his Test selections being a ”a thank-you for what the players have done this year”. Since when does an All Blacks coach make Test selections based on wanting to thank players for past service? What is wrong with picking players who are match fit and in form. Henry’s returning players who have had no game time could easily have got 20 minutes off the bench.

It is disappointing that Williams is not playing and that Hosea Gear is not starting. Likewise Victor Vito should be on the tour ahead of a veteran like Daniel Braid. Stephen Donald? Well that is just a case of the All Blacks coaches getting tangled up in their own quotes as the year has unfolded. They talked up Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade only to dump them and go for proven mediocrity at Test level in Donald. Either Cruden or Slade would have been a smarter selection than Donald.

With the Wallabies we are seeing consistent selections in recent Tests. Robbie Deans had cast the net wide for some time hoping to unearth new talent. Now 12 months out form the Rugby world Cup he has settled on the nucleaus of his side and the more Tests they play together the more formidable they will become.

For Saturdays match, having Drew Mitchell back is a huge boost for the Wallabies. He has easily been their stand-out back this year. He has pace and strength, but just needs to curb his attraction for watching referees wave yellow cards.

Ben Alexander will be welcomed back to the front row with open arms. Australia’s lack of quality in the propping department has been well documented inrecent years, but they are starting to hold their own well. The quality of their backline is undoubted. They have world class loose forwards and a hunger to end the All Blacks 10 match winning streak over them.

Hunger, consistency of selection and world class players add up to a serious test for the All Blacks. I hope the All Blacks are up for this and focussed on what they have to do to beat the Wallabies. If they are not then Graham Henry’s “thank you” selections might just come back to bite him.

WALLABIES: K Beale; D Mitchell, A Ashley-Cooper, M Giteau, J O’Connor; Q Cooper, W Genia; B McCalman, D Pocock, R Elsom (c), N Sharpe, M Chisholm, B Alexander, S Moore, B Robinson. Res: S Faingaa, J Slipper, D Mumm, R Brown, L Burgess, B Barnes, L Turner.

ALL BLACKS: M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu, J Rokocoko; D Carter, J Cowan; K Read, R McCaw (c), J Kaino, T Donnelly, B Thorn, O Franks, K Mealamu, T Woodcock. Res: H Elliott, J Afoa, S Whitelock, D Braid, A Mathewson, S Donald, I Toeava.