The reset season following the World Cup in Japan was supposed to be the one that brought Australian rugby competitively closer to our Kiwi rivals.
For once, the All Blacks arrived in London with all the focus on the England rugby side who were booed off Twickenham and have been written off against the tourists next weekend.
The media knives were out for England coach Martin Johnson after his side staggered to a 16-9 win over a hastily-assembled Argentina on Saturday, a week after their defeat to the Wallabies.
At the same time, the second-string All Blacks found it tough going against a fired-up Italy, winning 20-6 in Milan, but will again make wholesale changes to somewhere near their top lineup for Twickenham.
England’s rugby scribes painted a gloomy picture of their team, with former Test lock Paul Ackford particularly damning.
“It was a tale of poor ball retention, unforced errors and inaccurate tactical kicking. For the second week in a row the overriding impression was of a side lacking ambition, direction and leadership,” Ackford wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
The Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones predicted a similar performance would see an All Blacks win by “35 to 65 points” on Sunday.
Ackford didn’t spare Johnson, and said there was no sign of a coherent pattern in the team.
“He looks increasingly beleaguered and bad-tempered during a match and in interviews afterwards.”
Johnson meanwhile admitted he couldn’t argue with the crowd’s reaction as they booed his side off the field after they managed a solitary try to big winger Matt Banahan.
Said Johnson: “I think we probably deserved it (booing). No one would deny that.”
Meanwhile the All Blacks made the two-hour flight from Milan frustrated at how their performance was disrupted by an excellent Italian forward pack at a packed San Siro.
Coach Nick Mallett’s Italy would have undoubtedly taken more from a Test in which they demolished the All Blacks’ scrum, although the tourists suggested star prop Martin Castrogiovanni was boring in on his opposite Wyatt Crockett.
Assuming his back injury has improved, Tony Woodcock will make a much-needed return to the loosehead side along with most of the frontliners including Dan Carter, after his one-match dangerous tackle suspension.
Captain Rodney So’oialo, who will be usurped in the No.8 jersey by Kieran Read this week, reflected his side’s frustration after a Test dominated by kicking and the constant whistle of Australian referee Stu Dickinson.
“It was noisy out there and it was frustrating out there with the mistakes. We should have capitalised on a lot of stuff but a lot of mistakes we made were really simple ones,” he said.
“We didn’t take our opportunities when we should have, so we have to look at that and go and fix it.”
Coach Graham Henry said there were no injury concerns before the side flew out, saying fullback Cory Jane was fine, despite appearing to take a knock in the second half.
While the team for Sunday largely picks itself, most interest will surround who starts at No.6 between Adam Thomson and Jerome Kaino, which of Tom Donnelly or Jason Eaton will partner lock Brad Thorn, and whether impressive Cardiff debutant Zac Guildford gets another chance on the wing.