Is All Blacks' psychological grip taking hold?

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NZPA     20 Aug 2009     Getty Images

And bookmakers on both sides of the Tasman agree, labelling Saturday's Investec Tri Nations/Bledisloe Cup Test at ANZ Stadium an absolute head-scratcher between two sides who spluttered their way through South Africa.

New Zealand's TAB couldn't split them yesterday, pricing them $1.88 each, while Australia's TAB Sportsbet plumped for home advantage with the Wallabies $1.80 to the All Blacks' $2.

The Wallabies have won three of the past four in Sydney against the All Blacks, notably last year's 34-19 victory in Deans' first Bledisloe in green and gold.

While the All Blacks' trans-Tasman winning streak since then stands at four, assistant coach Wayne Smith wasn't buying into any talk about the Wallabies going missing at key moments in their recent defeats -- notably the hosts' 22-16 win in Auckland.

"They gave us a hiding here last year, that's all I know. They've got 11 of those players fronting and they've got a big one (flanker Rocky Elsom) back," Smith said.

"There's small margins there and we've managed to win those battles the last couple of years.

"Sometimes the test has turned on a little thing. I wouldn't think it's psychological, it's just the way the games have gone. It's going to be another close one. "

The ramifications for the losers are significant, too.

An All Blacks defeat will mean a rare three test losses in a row, officially finish their slim Tri Nations hopes and increase the scrutiny on the coaching trio, recently reappointed until the next World Cup.
If the All Blacks win they'll retain the Bledisloe Cup with two matches to spare, and the microscope will fall on Deans and his players whose temperaments against their nearest rivals will again be questioned.

Said Smith: "It's a big game for us there's no hiding from that. In terms of the Tri Nations one of us is going to be out.

"We talk about Bledisloe Cup too because it's a huge trophy for us but we think highly of the Tri Nations too. That's important to us and you don't want to give that up lightly. "

Daniel Carter is the All Blacks' trump card, returning for his first test of 2009 after a ruptured achilles tendon but needing a solid platform from an unchanged tight five to weave his magic.

Elsom is also returning from an injury layoff and carries similar high expectations; that he'll add some much-needed starch to the Wallabies at the physical contest.

"Both of them will be thinking `just be a cog in the wheel, fit in and do my job well'," Smith said.

"Neither will be expecting to be the massive difference maker everyone wants them to be. First game back you just try to do your job well, do it to a high level and help the team. "

Both sides have their final serious training today, with recalled All Blacks second five-eighth Luke McAlister needing to prove he's shaken off the back spasms which forced him out of Tuesday's session. He trained strongly at a skills session yesterday.