WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The All Blacks and Wallabies meet on Sunday in a Bledisloe Cup rugby test that marks the start of a new era between national teams also burdened with old baggage.
Both teams will be playing for the first time under new coaches. Former assistant Ian Foster has had to wait almost a year to lead the New Zealand All Blacks for the first time. New Zealand-born Dave Rennie is also making a delayed start to his Wallabies tenure with Australia.
The All Blacks also have a new captain, Sam Cane, a resilient back-rower who follows in the footsteps of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.
Both teams will also feature new or relatively inexperienced players, part of the rejuvenation process that follows a Rugby World Cup.
The teams are approaching each other cagily, not entirely sure what to expect. Foster has promised to be his own man, not simply to continue the coaching policies and style of his predecessor and former boss, Steve Hansen.
Rennie led the Hamilton-based Chiefs to two Super Rugby titles and that offers some insight into his coaching style. But how he will shape a Wallabies team without an over-abundance of established top talent remains to be seen, other than he will likely work hard on fundamentals.
Timing is also an issue. Test matches have seldom been played this late in the year in the southern hemisphere and, from the Wallabies’ point of view, with such a limited build-up.
The All Blacks have had the highly competitive Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament which produced rugby not far short of test match intensity. They have since been able to keep up their fitness in their national provincial championship.
The Wallabies had their own domestic Super Rugby AU but little since to sharpen their skills. They have spent two weeks in quarantine since arriving in New Zealand, confined to their rooms at first but able more recently to train as a squad. They also have to overcome a long history of defeat against New Zealand in New Zealand; the second test is at Eden Park where they last won in 1986, before anyone in the current squad was born.
The match comes at a time when relationships between the Australia and New Zealand rugby unions are described as being at an all-time low. The relationship has been deteriorating for some time, weakened by mutual mistrust. But the enmity increased when New Zealand produced a report on the possible shape of a future trans-Tasman Super Rugby tournament which would include only two Australian clubs.
Australia then won the Rugby Championship hosting rights from New Zealand, promising more lenient quarantine regulations for visiting teams, despite the fact the Argentina and South Africa teams have both been hit by COVID-19.
The recent animosity is unlikely to have any expression on the field. The players are professionals and have jobs to do, and seniors players on both sides have known each other for a long time.
Administrators in the grandstands — the matches in Wellington on Sunday and Auckland a week later will be played in full stadiums — may have their fingers crossed for a hefty win which might serve as an exclamation point in their arguments.
For fans there will just be the joy of seeing live test rugby again.
The All Blacks’ last test was the third-fourth playoff against Wales last November at the Rugby World Cup. But the semifinal loss to England which preceded that match hangs more heavily over them.
“Being involved in that, it obviously hurts and you’re never going to forget losing a World Cup playoff,” veteran hooker Codie Taylor said. “The great thing about this year is we’ve got a new group and there’s a whole lot of new players who weren’t a part of that team and they can bring a lot of energy themselves and help us get through.”
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