It is roughly 9:45pm on the 3rd of August 2002.
(Most of) ANZ Stadium is standing, with bated breath, as Matt Burke stands over an 81st minute penalty. The siren has sounded, and his Wallabies are down by a point, 14-13.
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If he kicks true, the Bledisloe Cup will be retained. True to script, the original Ice man steadies himself, before slotting the Bundaberg branded rugby ball straight through the middle of the posts.
Away from the ground, Prime Minister John Howard is elated, and quickly sets the alarm on his spanking new Sanyo SCP-5300 (the first ever flip phone with an in-built camera) for 7am, at which point he will wake up and go for a leisurely stroll, dressed head-to-toe in a Wallabies tracksuit.
All is well in the world.
Fast forward to the 18th of August 2018.
It has been more than 16 years since the Wallabies last held the Bledisloe aloft. In that time, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have all been invented. Australia has seen four Prime ministers come and go, and John Howard’s Sanyo hasn’t seen the light of day for more than a decade.
Every year, rugby fans around Australia entertain the thought of the Bledisloe returning to our shores.
It begs the question…
Could the 2018 Bledisloe be different?
Starting fast: Not an if, but a must
First and foremost, it is worth noting that Australia has won Game One of the Bledisloe only once in the last 10 years. It doesn’t take the most astute of observers to realise that it makes wrestling the cup back from the All Blacks awfully difficult if they fall behind 1-0 this evening.
It would appear that Michael Cheika has tipped his hat to this point. His internal trial at Leichardt Oval in the build-up was a more than useful hit out for his non-Waratahs squad members.
Whether it translates into a fast start come tonight remains to be seen. However, you’d be hard pressed to find any fan that didn’t like the concept.
The battle of the forwards
Cheika has gone all-in on the set piece with his selections 1 through 8. Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman start in the second row, and both are the lineout generals for their respective Super Rugby sides.
Rob Simmons, the caller for the Waratahs, has also won a spot on the bench.
The back row of Lukhan Tui, Michael Hooper and David Pocock is an interesting prospect. Pocock’s on-ball ability is undeniable, and it is a mobile trio.
With Pete Samu providing back-up from the bench, the battle at the breakdown will be extremely intriguing.
The questions arise in the front row.
Scott Sio’s shoulder niggle sees Tom Robertson start, alongside the returning Tatafu Polota-Nau and veteran Sekope Kepu.
Robertson was outstanding for the Waratahs in 2018, particularly in their finals run, and he thoroughly deserves his start.
However, his battle against Owen Franks is as tough as they come. It could be telling.
Taniela Tupou and Tolu Latu will be electric off the bench, expect decent minutes for both.
For the All Blacks, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are one of the best lock pairings in the world, whilst the evergreen Kieran Read returns from injury to skipper his side.
Desperation and suffocation in defence – the recipe for success
The Wallabies primary issue is not scoring points, it’s in not conceding them. Their attack is at its best, electric, and in Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, they have two of the form attacking weapons in world rugby. The return of Will Genia should also be a timely boost.
However, if the Wallabies are to win, they need to approach Game One in Sydney with the defensive intensity and line speed they displayed in Game One against Ireland at Suncorp Stadium a couple of months ago.
On that occasion, David Pocock was immense at breakdown time, and the Irish had literally no answer to the ferocity of the wall that was the Wallabies defence that night.
For 80 minutes, Cheika’s men out-enthused, out-tackled, and out-thought a very impressive rugby outfit.
Anything short of that performance will spell defeat for the men in gold.
Why the Wallabies can win
Form. The last time the Wallabies clashed with the All Blacks, they came away victors.
While that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) translate to them starting as favourites in Game One as Steve Hansen facetiously suggested mid-week, it certainly should instil the belief in the Wallabies playing group that they have the ability to win, and win well.
Why the Wallabies can’t win
Form! The All Blacks are still the absolute gold standard in world rugby, and they have a scarcely believable record in recent years.
Since Steve Hansen took over from Graham Henry in 2012, they have won 76 games from 85 starts at a respectable 89.5 per cent win rate. Ridiculous.
They have a clinical, accurate forward pack, which so often lays a winning platform for an enigmatic and highly damaging backline.
I think the All Blacks starting XV isa better-rounded and more complete side. However, Cheika’s bench has a few weapons, particularly in the front row. If used properly, it could make for a frenetic last 20 minutes when bodies start getting tired.
I think it will be an extremely close fixture, however the experience and X-Factor of the All Blacks should just be enough to get the job done at a bumper ANZ Stadium.
All Blacks by 8