It's time for the All Blacks to lay down a marker at Eden Park
2022 has been a disappointing campaign for the All Blacks to date.
Truth be told, whatever unfolds over the next two months, it’s not going to go down as one of the better seasons in the team’s 120-year history; a series loss to Ireland coupled with a first-ever home defeat to Argentina have ensured Ian Foster’s third year in charge of the New Zealand national side won’t be remembered fondly.
The All Blacks can still end their season on a positive note, however, provided they can give their fans at least some reason to be optimistic heading into next year’s Rugby World Cup campaign.
After this weekend’s clash with Australia, there are still matches to come against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England. It’s the final game at Twickehnam that will give outsiders a true indication of where the team stands relative to other nations who might also fancy their chances at taking home the silverware next November.
Australia, Wales and Scotland will be expected to put up a fight against the All Blacks (and at this stage, victories are no longer a given for the men in black) but it’s England who will undoubtedly produce the sternest challenge – they’re the side most capable of troubling a New Zealand team who are yet to prove themselves capable of footing it with the bigger, more tactically astute powers of the north.
But while the Wallabies should really have no business pushing for a win at Eden Park, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty for the All Blacks to gain in Auckland this weekend.
We’ve seen glimpses of a relatively capable team throughout the year: the young front-rowers have stepped up and reinvigorated somewhat of an aging forward pack, Ardie Savea has been at his rollicking best, David Havili’s strength in the midfield have finally been on show in the last few weeks and the likes of Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane have come close to cutting some opposition defences to shreds. What we’re yet to see, however, is it all come together at the same time in a strong performance against any of New Zealand’s traditional rivals.
The performance in the second test against Argentina was certainly a step in the right direction, especially given the defeat the previous week, but with the Rugby Championship on the line this weekend, it’s time for the All Blacks to deliver on all the promise that Foster have spoken of in recent months.
“I still think there’s something special brewing, but we’ve got to keep showing it,” he said after the loss to the Springboks in Mbombela.
We’re still yet to see that special something materialise, however.
The last time the All Blacks were bested at Eden Park was by the French in 1994. Australia haven’t tasted success at the Garden of Eden since 1986, finding themselves on the wrong side of the ledger in 22 straight matches. With odds like those, NZ will be expected to win and win well and there were signs in Melbourne that things were starting to come together.
With some better patience and execution, the All Blacks could have quite easily banked three or four more tries than the five they scored at Marvel Stadium and Foster and his assistants will be looking for a more complete performance than what his charges ultimately delivered last Thursday.
Giving up an 18-point lead was a massive blight on the team’s performance but it certainly wasn’t all bad and with a bit of poise and a forwards performance similar to the one delivered in Johanessburg and Hamilton, instead of the inconsistent, messy affair we witnessed in Melbourne, it’s entirely feasible that the All Blacks banks the bonus point victory they so desperately need in order to claim the Rugby Championship.
Remember that since Argentina joined the competition in 2012, Australia and South Africa have each claimed the Rugby Championship title on just one occasion – in 2015 and 2019, when each team played just three matches due to the Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks have never ceded the title in a ‘full’ campaign, and Foster certainly won’t be looking to end New Zealand’s dominance.
An impressive performance at Eden Park will provide supporters with at least some confidence that the All Blacks could still potentially foot it with the best of the best when the game’s showpiece event kicks off next year in France, even if we’re yet to see significant evidence of that in the season to date.
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