A number of records are on the line in the second Southern Hemisphere heavyweight blockbuster in two weeks when New Zealand meets usual rivals Australia on Sunday night, 9pm local time. The Wallabies have failed to beat the All Blacks at their Eden Park stronghold in the professional era and embarrassingly lost to Ireland in pool play at the same ground. The host nation is yet to lose a World Cup match on home soil and have reached the semi-final in a far more comfortable manner than their neighbours. However New Zealand are still searching for a first win over their trans-Tasman rivals at a World Cup tournament and have to contend with the injury-enforced absence of arguably rugby’s biggest star in Daniel Carter, while Australia ride into this game with no little confidence after a fantastic rearguard performance against South Africa defied poor form in pool play. Add to this the bitter history between two of the world’s premier international coaches in Graham Henry and Robbie Deans and this match quickly shapes up to be the biggest contest in international rugby in the last four years.
The All Black pack is finally injury free and looks a scary prospect on paper, with a dominant tight five augmented with the frightening form of Jerome Kaino on the blindside flank. If the recently fit duo of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read can reach the heights that the world expects in the back row, pre-match ravings around David Pocock could matter little in the crucial battle for front-foot ball. The loss of both Daniel Carter and his understudy Colin Slade has left the backs under the unlikely control of diminutive livewire Aaron Cruden, although the rise of Piri Weepu ensures the halves are not devoid of test experience. The enigmatic Sonny Bill Williams only makes the bench in a backline that looks to have returned to full strength outside the problematic fly-half zone, with Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui shaking off minor injuries that saw them both miss the quarterfinal.
The Australian squad is not without its own problems, with Adam Ashley-Cooper forced to move to full-back to cover the substantial loss of the hamstrung Kurtley Beale. While Ashley-Cooper is no stranger to the position, his move from centre leaves the inexperienced midfield combination of Anthony Fainga’a and Pat McCabe to negotiate an illustrious All Blacks combination of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Quade Cooper must face his own demons after a poor display against South Africa saw his credentials under pressure severely criticised. Elsewhere, the pack remains unchanged despite a less than convincing display against the Africans; much relies on the outstanding David Pocock to produce a second match-winning effort in two weeks if Australia are to have any chance of reaching the final.
Australia may have beaten South Africa, but Deans’ troops lost every other battle that night; it will take something special for the Wallabies to play the same trick given their next opponents happen to be the world’s number one ranked team. The counter-attacking style of the host nation will at least ensure Australia will see more ball than their last outing, but superiority in the set piece coupled with a deadly record at Eden Park should see New Zealand make their first final in sixteen years. All Blacks by 8!
New Zealand: 15. Israel Dagg, 14. Cory Jane, 13. Conrad Smith, 12. Ma’a Nonu, 11. Richard Kahui, 10. Aaron Cruden, 9. Piri Weepu, 8. Kieran Read, 7. Richie McCaw (c), 6. Jerome Kaino, 5. Sam Whitelock, 4. Brad Thorn, 3. Owen Franks, 2. Keven Mealamu, 1. Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16. Andrew Hore, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Ali Williams, 19. Victor Vito, 20. Andy Ellis, 21. Stephen Donald, 22. Sonny Bill Williams
Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper 14 James O’Connor, 13 Anthony Fainga’a, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia; 8 Radike Samo, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Dan Vickerman, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu.
Reserves: 16 Tatafu Polota Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Berrick Barnes, 22 Rob Horne.