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Now for the serious business

Patrick McKendry / NZ Herald

Now for the serious business of the Bledisloe Cup.

A potential omen for the All Blacks: they have never won a Rugby Championship tournament during a successful World Cup year, and current leaders the Boks have it all to lose when they play Argentina next weekend, but New Zealand have held the Bledisloe since 2003 and it’s a piece of silverware they dearly want to keep.

It’s a simple equation for Steve Hansen’s men in Perth next Saturday. Beat the Wallabies and they’ve retained the cup for another year. If not it will hinge on the return match at their Eden Park fortress a week later.

But would a victory of any sort do at this point, with two tests remaining after this one until the World Cup? Possibly not. Hansen wants to see improvements on the two displays so far – a scratchy win over the Pumas and a similar performance in a draw to South Africa in Wellington – and particularly as far as the set piece and combinations go.

Hansen will want his pack to turn the screw on the Wallabies far harder than they could manage against the Pumas and Boks. The loss of Brodie Retallick won’t help with that but Scott Barrett is back from a broken hand and available to partner Sam Whitelock in the second row. That will help mitigate against the loss of one of the best locks in the world.

Another reason to be hopeful of improvements is the fact Hansen will go with his strongest line-up. That has to mean Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett starting again, and presumably loose forward Ardie Savea running on for the first whistle too.

A fair bit of quality was missing against Argentina, and many of those Crusaders who returned to play the Springboks looked rusty from their time off. Combinations should improve as a result, and Mo’unga and Barrett would have learned an enormous amount when starting together for the first time just over a week ago.

“We’ve had a couple of weeks together and two games and everybody has played a game, just about, so we’re expecting to see things improve and combinations to click,” Hansen said.

“The message to the team is to just believe in what we’re doing and be patient. We know we always improve the more games we play together. How much? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Hansen respects the threats the Wallabies pose on attack but will know they don’t pose the defensive threat possessed by the Boks or even the Pumas.

They also attack with more freedom which will present the All Blacks, who have scored only two tries in two tests, with far more opportunities than they have received recently.

“Their set piece is working really well,” Hansen said. “They’re scrummaging well. I think their lineout is running at 100 per cent or pretty close to it. They’ve always had dangerous backs so we just have to try to put some pressure on them at set piece.”

The Wallabies’ inspirational loose forward David Pocock is likely to return from a long-term calf injury, a presence which will be carefully planned for by Hansen. “He hasn’t played for a long time,” he said. “Having said that, we know he’s a world class player, especially around the breakdown. We’ll have to put things in place to keep him out of there.”

The All Blacks have arrived in Perth without first-five Josh Ioane and loose forward Luke Jacobson due to concussion injuries, the latter a possible recurrence of a previous problem.

Flanker Vaea Fifita has travelled despite the recent sudden death of his brother.

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and is republished with permission.

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Now for the serious business