Saturday, August 17, 2013

The battle for the Bledisloe

A new chapter in the rugby rivalry between New Zealand and Australia begins tonight; Hansen vs McKenzie. McKenzie was always going to be the coach of the Wallabies one day; the only question was "When?".

But even a series win against the British and Irish Lions might not have been enough for Robbie Deans to keep his job. There was a strong mood for change at the top of Australian rugby.

One of the major drivers for that was Australia's lack of recent success against New Zealand. Deans had a very poor record against both Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, even though he started with a win in their very first head-to-head in Sydney in 2008. In a country used to winning, that was simply not good enough.

In the Herald today Gregor Paul profiles McKenzie:

The feel-good factor sweeping through Australian rugby is not without foundation - there's plenty of evidence to show that new international coaches often enjoy instant success.
That success is most pronounced when the succession was forced - the result of the previous man not leaving of his own volition - which is the situation in Australia.
Ewen McKenzie was coach of the Reds a few weeks ago, now he's apparently some kind of rugby messiah. A new coach means a new beginning - fresh hope, a clean slate and the impossible becoming possible.
The transformation has been stunning. A nation now believes it has a man at the helm who is capable of instilling in the Wallabies enough belief and clever ploys to finally end the All Black era of dominance.
It seems illogical that McKenzie can arrive a few weeks after the shattering series loss to the Lions, wave his magic wand at beleaguered and under-performing troops and hey presto, start his tenure with a win against the best side in the world.

And the All Blacks are expecting Australia to throw everything at them tonight; read on:

But it has happened often with other international sides, and that's why the All Blacks expect to be facing fire and brimstone tonight.
"They will turn up and give it everything they have got," says All Black coach Steve Hansen.
"So we need to match that intensity or better it.
"There is going to be a new coach and whenever that happens it seems to be an uplifting thing ... It creates a bit of confidence."
Examples of a new coach making a difference or striking it lucky early are everywhere. Robbie Deans inherited a Wallaby side that was dumped out of the 2007 World Cup in the quarter-finals. He began with a series win against France and then thumped the All Blacks.

Interestingly, Hansen is quite happy for New Zealand to carry the favourites tag into tonight's match. That is a refreshing change from past teams that have tried desperately to go in as underdogs, even when they are anything but. And there's no reason for the All Blacks to downplay themselves; they are the world champions, playing through four nations champions, and haven't lost the Bledisloe Cup for some time. They have plenty to be confident about.

Tonight's match will set the tome for the Rugby Championship. We are picking the All Blacks to win, but not until they have subdued an aggressive and enthusiastic Wallabies outfit. Kick-off is getting closer, and excitement is building; bring it on!

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