New looks but old baggage for All Blacks and Wallabies
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - The All Blacks and Wallabies meet on Sunday in a rugby test for the Bledisloe Cup, which marks the beginning of a new era between national teams also burdened with old baggage.
Both teams are playing under new coaches for the first time. Former assistant Ian Foster had to wait almost a year to run the New Zealand All Blacks for the first time. New Zealand born Dave Rennie is also off to a late start to his Wallabies tenure with Australia.
The All Blacks also have a new captain, Sam Cane, a resilient rear rower who follows in the footsteps of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.
Both teams will also have new or relatively inexperienced players, which is part of the rejuvenation process that follows a rugby world cup.
The teams are approaching restlessly and are not exactly sure what to expect. Foster has promised to be his own man and not just continue the coaching guidelines and style of his predecessor and former boss Steve Hansen.
Rennie led the Hamilton-based Chiefs to two super rugby titles, and that provides a glimpse into his coaching style. However, it remains to be seen how he will shape a Wallabies team without an overabundance of established top talent, other than that he will likely work hard on the basics.
Timing is also an issue. Test matches were rarely played this late in the year in the southern hemisphere and, from the wallabies' perspective, with such a limited structure.
The All Blacks had the highly competitive Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament where rugby wasn't far from the intensity of the friendly match. Since then, they have been able to maintain their fitness in their national provincial championship.
The Wallabies had their own Super Rugby AU, but little since then to improve their skills. They have been in quarantine for two weeks since arriving in New Zealand. They were initially limited to their rooms, but have recently been able to train as a squad. You must also overcome a long history of losing to New Zealand in New Zealand; The second test takes place at Eden Park, where they last won in 1986 before anyone was born in the current roster.
The game comes at a time when relations between the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions are being described as at an all-time low. The relationship has been deteriorating for some time, weakened by mutual distrust. Hostility increased, however, when New Zealand tabled a report on the possible shape of a future Trans Tasman super rugby tournament in which only two Australian clubs would participate.
Australia then won the rugby championship as host from New Zealand, promising milder quarantine rules for visiting teams, despite the fact that both the Argentine and South African teams were hit by COVID-19.
The recent hostility is unlikely to be reflected in the field. The players are professionals and have jobs to do, and seniors on both sides have known each other for a long time.
Administrators in the stands - Sunday's Wellington and Auckland games a week later will be played in full stadiums - may keep their fingers crossed for a hefty win that could serve as an exclamation point in their arguments.
For fans, it will just be the joy to see live test rugby again.
The All Blacks' last test was the third to fourth playoffs against Wales last November at the Rugby World Cup. But the semi-final defeat to England that preceded this game hangs more over them.
"Obviously being involved in it hurts and you will never forget losing a World Cup playoff," said veteran hooker Codie Taylor. "The great thing about this year is that we have a new group and there are a lot of new players who were not part of this team. They can bring in a lot of energy and help us get through."
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