Preview: June internationals

Wed 13 Jun 2012
Preview: June internationals

WE RUN the rule over the All Blacks’ and Wallabies’ June 16 internationals against Ireland and Wales respectively.

ALL BLACKS v IRELAND
When:
Saturday June 16, 7.35pm
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Head-to-Head: Played 25, All Blacks 24, Ireland 0, Drawn 1
In Christchurch: N/A
Last match: June 9, 2012: All Blacks beat Ireland 42-10 at Eden Park, Auckland

THIS IS the first All Blacks-Ireland test match in Christchurch and the odds on it being an historic victory to the tourists were long even before they took the field at Eden Park for the series opener.

The Irish emerged battered and bruised from their 42-10 defeat, and now face an All Blacks side which should be amped up playing its first test at the redeveloped ground in Addington. This will also be the first test in Christchurch since August 2010. The city’s problems have been well documented but the Crusaders have christened the venue with at least three special Super Rugby performances. The All Blacks have been hitting the PR trail this week, and fair enough too.

But they will know too, that while the victory in Auckland to kick off the Steve Hansen era represented a solid starting point, there is more to be done in the name of self-improvement.

Flanker Victor Vito was ruled out with a knee injury and a head wound, which means Adam Thomson, who scored a try off the bench in the first test, will come into the starting line-up. No 8 Kieran Read is good to go, despite taking a knock to the head.

There was a pleasing degree of fluency in the backline, much of that stemming from swift ball out of the breakdown and through the speed of Aaron Smith’s pass. But Israel Dagg had his best game since the RWC semifinal. He looked sharp, if not flawless, while the SBW-Conrad Smith combination was able to provide plenty of swift ball to the outsides.

Debutant Julian Savea gave Fergus McFadden nightmares with a three-try introduction to this level. Dan Carter’s boot and allround game clicked into top gear.

The pack, once it bossed the breakdown after the initial exchanges, looked solid, but one might have expected Tony Woodcock to pour more pressure on rookie Declan Fitzpatrick. Richie McCaw was again good value, though he will want to eradicate his handling errors.

Hansen liked what he saw and wants to see more of it this weekend.

“We’ve got a group of men who have been there before, they’ve scratched a line in the sand, a very high line at that, and they needed to come back and start where they left off. That makes it easier for the young fellas to come in. They just have to do their job and do what they’ve been picked for,” says the All Blacks coach.

For Ireland, loosies Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip got through a power of work, mostly on defence. There were injuries to Keith Earls (pectoral), Fitzpatrick (glutes), and Cian Healy (shoulder), but only Earls had been ruled out at the time of print. That should mean the Leinster midfield of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll is reunited.

The Irish skipper knew what he was up against, and knows his team has a lot to improve on if it hopes to be competitive, but a second heavy test defeat (following the 30-9 dust-up at Twickenham in the Six Nations) does not augur well.

“I’ve seen the All Blacks play pretty well a few times. For a team that hadn’t played since the Rugby World Cup final, that was pretty good,” says O’Driscoll, acknowledging the speed of the All Blacks’ game.

Coach Declan Kidney felt his debutants – there were three of them in the 22 used – would have learned a huge amount from the Auckland test. It would have been nice to see Munster flyer Simon Zebo receive more ball. Can it be provided this weekend?

The one variable is the weather. It was snowing hard in Canterbury just last week. It was raining hard in Auckland last week too, but the slippery ball did little to affect the game plan or skill execution of the All Blacks.

Ireland will not fear a bit of frost, but then neither will the All Blacks, many of whom are Cantabrians who know what it’s like in Christchurch in June. The best advice for the crowd is to wrap up and hope for another sparking display of speed rugby to warm them up.

– Campbell Burnes

WALLABIES v WALES
When: Saturday June 16, 8.00pm (10.00pm NZT)
Where: Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 33, Wallabies 22, Wales 10, Drawn 1
In Melbourne: N/A
Last match: June 9 2012: Wallabies beat Wales 27-19 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

THE WALLABIES are a funny bunch.

One minute they can be dreadful (see last week’s embarrassing loss to Scotland in Newcastle); the next they can turn it on and look like world beaters.

The latter was what they were against Wales in Brisbane last weekend. With its back against the wall and coach Robbie Deans copping a barrage of criticism following the Scotland malfunction, Australia showed cohesion, poise and smarts as it outscored the confident – and previously unbeaten – visitors three tries to one to go 1-0 up in the three-test series.

The manner in which the Wallabies did so was impressive. They were able to play at speed and use the full width of the park because the pack stood up and produced consistent, front-foot ball.

The 27-19 victory was sparked by Will Genia, who scored a stunning solo try and laid on the match-clincher to Pat McCabe. The pint-sized halfback produced a brilliant allround display, with his speed to and from the ruck and sniping runs causing all sorts of bother for the Welsh. More of the same will be expected from him this Saturday.

Captain David Pocock was also at his ball-scavenging best and won the highly-anticipated battle of the opensides against his Welsh counterpart Sam Warburton. His ability to zone in and attack the ball under pressure at the breakdown was paramount to the Wallabies’ success, and Deans was quick to sing his praises after the game.

“He is a physical freak. He has such a low centre of gravity, he's got such strength and he's quick and he's smart.

“So he gets into good position and he claims good position. He's nigh impossible to move and he gets the benefit of that.”

All-action blindside flanker Scott Higginbotham was as rugged as ever and pivot Berrick Barnes, after struggling against Scotland, orchestrated proceedings nicely. Fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper and prop Benn Robinson were others to produce top-shelf displays.

Deans has duly rewarded those players who took to the park in Brisbane by naming the same starting XV for the first-ever clash between the two sides in Melbourne. Prop Sekope Kepu has been included in the front-row, despite straining a tendon in his forearm, but needs to prove his fitness in the next day or two.

It was initially hoped Kurtley Beale might find his way onto the bench, but Deans says the talented fullback/flyhalf still has plenty of work to do in his comeback from a shoulder injury.

While Deans is able to roll out the same run-on XV, Wales won’t be able to do so.

No 8 Toby Faletau (broken bone in his hand) is gone from the tour, his place in the squad being taken by Gareth Delve from the Melbourne Rebels. Caretaker coach Rob Howley is also sweating on the fitness of wing George North (dead leg) and centre Scott Williams (facial injuries).

Although Wales mounted a spirited comeback, reducing the scoreline to 20-19 after trailing 20-6 at one point, it was left to rue its inability to maintain possession for long periods of time. That was mainly due to handling errors and the Wallabies’ back-row of Pocock, Higginbotham and Wycliff Palu being able to disrupt and boss the breakdown.

Warburton admits that his side was beaten up at the ruck and also struggled with the Wallabies’ speed, particularly in the first half.

“It was a new experience for a lot of us playing out here. That first half was the quickest game I have played in.

"It's a tough lesson, but we'll learn from it this week and hopefully improve for [this] Saturday."

A second-string Wales side beat the Brumbies 25-15 in Canberra on Tuesday.

But the main men have plenty to do if their side is to end its drought in Australia and keep the series alive.

– Lee Stace

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