New Zealand vs. Australia: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Bledisloe Cup
After the drab draw in Sydney, the battle for the Bledisloe Cup moved on to Auckland.
Conditions for the second Test look markedly better, which should give us a chance of witnessing the first try of the 2014 trans-Tasman tussle.
Australia have named the same lineup fielded in Sydney while the All Blacks have had injury concerns to deal with.
The personnel changes for the hosts should do little to diminish their ability to wreak havoc in better weather, but we should find out how well Ewen McKenzie's men can cope with them when the heavens are closed.
Here are the key battles.
1. Ryan Crotty vs. Matt Toomua
Injury to Ma'a Nonu gave the All Blacks coaches the chance to award a start to the explosive Malakai Fekitoa, but they have gone for more craft in the No. 12 shirt in the shape of Ryan Crotty.
The Cantabrian went down in All Blacks legend when he scored the try that preserved their 100 per cent 2013 winning streak.
Now he is charged with the job of providing the creativity that was so hard to come by in the rain last week. Against him is Toomua, who had little chance to showcase his own distribution skills in the miserable weather.
So what the All Blacks lose in brute force, they may have gained in guile, which is certainly not lacking from Toomua's repertoire. The man who brings the best level of cool-headed, icy-veined decision-making could hold the key to unlocking the other's back door.
2. The Scrum
One factor over all others means the scrum will be a key battle: Roman Poite is the referee.
The Frenchman loves a good contest up front and likes nothing more than to reward the dominant pack when the pushing starts.
He whistled the Wallabies to death as the Lions mauled their scrummage in the last Test of the 2013 series, and he will be on the lookout for the pack who start going backwards in Auckland. You sense the All Blacks could benefit here.
Wyatt Crockett has a point to prove after getting the hook following his daft yellow card last week and Australia remain vulnerable if not the same creaking mess they once were in this department.
3. Ben Smith vs. Israel Folau
Neither man had much chance to show what he could do in the slithering mud of Sydney, so they will relish the firmer going under foot to have a crack at each others' back line when the counter-attack is on.
New Zealand are the best in the business at ripping a team apart in blindingly fast time once they secure a turnover, and Smith is their best asset with which to exploit a broken field.
Australia possess in Folau a match winner every other side in the world would pick, and he can shred a defence all on his own if he gets time and space.
It is Smith's job to ensure he doesn't get it. New Zealand will kick the ball into the space either side of the Wallaby full-back, and Smith must position himself correctly to ensure it doesn't come back in the arms of this green-and-gold menace.
4. Cruden vs. Beale
It came down to missed kicks last week, and although we anticipate at least a try or two in the improved weather, this matchup between the heir to the All Black throne and the man no one but his coach seems to think should be playing No. 10 for Australia could still decide the outcome.
Both kicked admirably in horrible kicking conditions in Sydney, so their aims must remains true to move their side of the scoreboard whenever the chance arises.
5. Attack vs. Defence
Many New Zealand fans may feel that the only thing that stood between them and another handsome win over Australia last week was the weather.
But even the most myopic of All Blacks supporters would have to consider altering that view if they look at the numbers from the first Test.
The New Zealand Herald's stats centre ranks week one's top tacklers, with the first four slots occupied by Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
Australia's Michael Hooper is sixth in the tackle league. If you didn't see the game, those figures represent a decent account of what happened. Australia could have and should have won. Against lesser players, they would have.
It would be quite a shift if we saw a major reversal in those tackle numbers in Auckland. Australia know how to apply pressure to the New Zealand rearguard, and if they have found something in last week's game tape that shows them where the chinks were, they will target those areas this time.
It will be intriguing to see just how well the coaches on both sides have done this week in spotting where the gaps are and working out either how to plug them, or how to chivvy them open.
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