Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has vowed to resign if Australia does not win the World Cup later this year. But what if his side regain the Bledisloe Cup at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday night? Would that be sufficient for Rugby Australia to offer a contract extension beyond the tournament in Japan?
The Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup, the second most important trophy to Australians and New Zealanders, for 16 long, agonising years. Cheika’s predecessors Eddie Jones, John Connolly, Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie all failed to bring it back and as long as the Wallabies perform credibly at the World Cup – reaching the final or maybe even just a semi-final – breaking the Bledisloe drought should count for something when his future is considered.
Cheika appears to be working wonderfully well with the Wallabies co-selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O’Connor, along with new attack coach Shaun Berne. Can Rugby Australia afford to break up this team, particularly if the Wallabies can regain a treasured piece of silverware that has eluded them for more than a decade and a half?
The Wallabies selectors signalled their intent to focus on Bledisloe success by sticking with the team that stunned the All Blacks 47-26 in the opening Test in Perth last Saturday night. Second-rower Adam Coleman has replaced the injured Rory Arnold, while veteran outside back Adam Ashley-Cooper is on the bench.
Even with the World Cup on the horizon, the selectors resisted the temptation to experiment or trial players. They have picked the best available Wallabies team with the aim of bringing back the Bledisloe. They should be applauded for it.
Conversely, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has made wholesale changes to the world’s No 1 team, dropping several big name players such as Ben Smith and Owen Franks. It was a tacit acknowledgement by Hansen that the Wallabies would have been too good for the All Blacks in Perth even if second rower Scott Barrett was not red-carded for shoulder-charging Australian captain Michael Hooper just before half-time.
Whether Hansen has hit the panic button or given the All Blacks the shake-up they need will be determined on Saturday night. But it was the changes Hansen did not make that might be the most significant. The All Blacks have retained their two playmaker policy with Richie Mo’unga at five-eighth and Beauden Barrett at fullback as well as the Kiwi version of “Pooper” with two openside flankers, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, in the backrow.
This means the Wallabies will be able to employ much the same strategy that was so successful for them in Perth. Even without the injured Arnold, they should be able to dominate an All Blacks lineout with two opensides and New Zealand’s fourth-ranked lock Patrick Tuipuloto replacing the suspended Barrett.
The Wallabies will have the confidence to either keep the ball in hand or kick it into touch to pressure the All Blacks’ lineout rather than kicking to Barrett and new wingers George Bridge and Sevu Reece, denying the Kiwis counter-attacking opportunities in broken play.
Barrett can always move up to first receiver to get his hands on the ball, but if the Wallabies dominate up front and win a glut of possession, like they did in Perth, his influence on the game will be lessened.
The Wallabies will be bracing themselves for a “blacklash” at Eden Park where they have not beaten the All Blacks since 1986. Not only do they have to contend with the Eden Park hoodoo, but the All Blacks do not lose two games in a row very often – Australia have not won two Tests in a row against them since 2001.
And, of course, the All Blacks have been in this position before. In the last three World Cup years the Wallabies have won the home Bledisloe Cup Test, but lost the away fixture. It should also be remembered that even though the Wallabies dominated possession and territory in Perth and had 15 on 14 for 41 minutes, they still only out-scored the All Blacks six tries to four.
The enormity of the task facing them should not be lost on the Wallabies. But there is a different feeling about this game. The All Blacks, no doubt, will play like a wounded beast, but the Wallabies at last seem to have the right selections, the right tactics and just as importantly the right temperament.
Despite the record scoreline produced in Perth there were no displays of exuberance or back-slapping by the Wallabies. They seemed quiet, reserved, even subdued, in victory, knowing it was a job well done, but still only half done. This is the hard-edged mentality Cheika has finally been able to instil into his Wallabies.