As New Zealand contemplates sealing the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup rugby titles this week, Australia faces the prospect of tying its worst losing streak against its neighbor.
The All Blacks’ 49-28 rout of the Wallabies in Melbourne two days ago put them 11 points clear atop the southern hemisphere championship standings and extended their winning streak to eight in a rivalry stretching back to 1903.
Another victory in Christchurch on Aug. 7 would see New Zealand match the record of nine straight wins between 1936 and 1947. It would also see the All Blacks retain the Bledisloe Cup they contest with the Wallabies for the eighth year in a row and likely guarantee a record-extending 10th Tri-Nations title.
“So where to from here? And in just one week!” former Wallabies captain John Eales wrote today in the Australian Financial Review. “Having trod a similar path, I know it will be a long week. It will reveal character within the team, which is important as character will lead the Wallabies out of this situation.”
Former Australia hooker Brendan Cannon, writing in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, said the Wallabies’ execution at “clutch plays” had again let them down at rugby’s elite level.
“During the course of an 80-minute international examination, there are elements of the game where the Wallabies lose control too easily,” wrote Cannon, who played 42 Tests for his country. “The All Blacks are a different story. Their composure under sustained pressure is second to none. They are always in the driver’s seat.”
Australia, which opened its Tri-Nations campaign last week by beating defending champion South Africa, took an 8-3 lead in Melbourne before falling to its biggest home defeat since losing 50-21 to New Zealand seven years ago.
The All Blacks ran in seven tries to three at Etihad Stadium, with full-back Mils Muliaina touching down twice, to secure their third straight bonus-point victory and move to 15 points atop the standings. South Africa has no points following three straight losses on the road last month.
Sean Fitzpatrick, who played a record 92 Tests for New Zealand, said the All Blacks are currently “playing smarter, better rugby than anyone else.” Head coach Graham Henry and his assistants appeared to fix the squad’s weaknesses, he added.
“This coaching team clearly identified problem areas after last season -- the scrum, lineout, restarts, the aerial game that we were pretty average at -- and they have worked hard on these areas,” Fitzpatrick wrote in the New Zealand Herald. “They are doing these things very well now.”
For their Australian counterparts, restoring the players’ belief in time for another meeting with the All Blacks in Christchurch may be the biggest challenge, according to Eales.
“It’s a big week for the coaching staff,” wrote Eales, who led the Wallabies to 1999 Rugby World Cup victory and their only Tri-Nations titles in 2000 and 2001.
“How do they instill confidence for a return match in just seven days?” he added. “The counseling would have begun in what I imagine was a very quiet dressing room. The loudest voices would have been in the players’ heads as they searched their souls for answers.”