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Preview: New Zealand v Australia

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Sportal.co.nz     14 Oct 2011     Getty Images

New Zealand has never beaten Australia in World Cup play. But by the evening of the 23rd, at least one of those statements will no longer be true.

DATE: Sunday October 16, 2011
KICK-OFF: 2100 NZDT (1900 AEDT)
VENUE: Eden Park, Auckland
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The answer depends on whose version of history you're reading. New Zealand records show 142 matches of which New Zealand has won 96, Australia 41 and five have been drawn. Australian records include a further 24 matches involving New South Wales and New Zealand between 1920 and 1928, of which New Zealand won 18 and New South Wales six. However you choose to measure it, this is Test rugby's most played rivalry.
HEAD-TO-HEAD IN WORLD CUPS: Played 2: New Zealand 0, Australia 2
LAST TIME: August 27, 2011 (Brisbane): Australia 25-20 New Zealand

WALKING WOUNDED:
New Zealand lost two more players for the rest of the tournament when Colin Slade became the second fly-half to suffer a groin injury and Mils Muliaina broke a shoulder in his 100th Test. They have been replaced in the squad by Stephen Donald and Hosea Gear respectively. Much speculation has surrounded openside flanker Matt Todd's appearance at training but management insists this is normal practice and that Richie McCaw is fine. New Zealand ultimately showed three backline changes from the quarter-final, with Israel Dagg replacing Muliaina, a fit-again Richard Kahui going onto the wing instead of Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Cruden taking over at fly-half.

Australia had their share of medical issues through the week, with those causing most concern being Kurtley Beale's hamstring and Sekope Kepu's ankle. Pat McCabe, who again left the field with a shoulder problem, played a full part in training through the week. In the end Beale was named in the team, but a decision will be made on his fitness as close to kick-off as possible; as a result there are a couple of brackets in the Wallabies backline but otherwise the team is unchanged from Wellington.

FORM:
New Zealand:
Beat Tonga 41-10
Beat Japan 83-7
Beat France 37-17
Beat Canada 79-15
First in Pool A
Beat Argentina 33-10 (QF)

Australia:
Beat Italy 32-6
Lost to Ireland 6-15
Beat USA 67-5
Beat Russia 68-22
Second in Pool C
Beat South Africa 11-9 (QF)

New Zealand, as expected, were too strong for Argentina in a match dominated by penalties. The play never flowed as both sides did all they could to kill the other's quick ball. The difference was Argentina was more heavily penalised and Piri Weepu kicked his goals. But the All Blacks created far more scoring chances and only things like a toe on the touchline (Kieran Read), an in-field bounce (Mils Muliaina) and desperate tackling (several times) stopped New Zealand putting that one away early. With the forwards dominating, the New Zealand backline was never under too much pressure.

Australia was always under pressure of the most intense kind at Wellington and it would not have needed much for South Africa to win. The Boks had almost all the ball, and mostly at Australia's end, but outstanding defence and the ability to take the one chance that offered itself was enough to get the Wallabies home. There was much wailing and gnashing of South African teeth in the aftermath over breakdown rulings but David Pocock, the prime target, was fast enough, strong enough and, most importantly, good enough to win a flood of turnover ball that defused one dangerous situation after another. That, allied to a one-in, all-in mentality, served Australia very well.

WHO'S HOT/PLAYER TO WATCH:
No man will be under more scrutiny in New Zealand that Aaron Cruden, but his showing on Sunday should have calmed a few nerves among the fans. He didn't try and do too much when he first came on, but concentrated on the basics and getting into the flow of the game. As he settled there were a few of his trademark darts at the defence and a couple of breaks resulted, while his kicking from hand was good. He also looked composed - there was nothing rushed about anything he did - and gave the impression of a confident young player relishing the spotlight.

David Pocock commanded the bold ink last Sunday but it was hard to go past Wallabies skipper James Horwill as a guy who typified the team's attitude. Even when things were not going right he never stopped working flat out and that example was not lost on the other players. He was on hand to finish the only try of the match, tackled like a man possessed and gave his all in a pack that was under huge pressure throughout. By the end of the match he looked as if he'd just gone 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali, and you can bet he'll be ready to do the same again this weekend.

THEY SAY:
All Black coach Graham Henry had his game face on when he fielded questions late in the week - there was nothing flippant in his answers. That included a reply to the inevitable question over whether the Brisbane defeat would be a motivational tool. "As far as this rugby tournament is concerned it's a semi-final we need to win to win a Cup and it so happens that it's against Australia," he said. "We know them, they know us well, there's a lot of rivalry but I don't think it's any different to playing anyone else in the semi-final of a Rugby World Cup. You've just got to do the business." 'Nuff said.

Wallabies assistant coach David Nucifora was busy lighting fires under the All Blacks at a Thursday press conference. "The [All Black] players understand the expectation that sits on their shoulders to win a World Cup. How they deal with that will be really important because you only have to walk the streets, and it's everywhere around you at the moment. The pressure is mounting, the expectation is there. It's been a long time and people want to win it. It's going to be interesting to see how they deal with that.' Australia is good at this sort of thing - just ask the 1991 and 2003 England teams, who were talked into running the ball solely for the final. There's more to come, for sure.

WE THINK:
New Zealand may expect to win, but the Australians will have grown another leg after surviving a match that, by almost any measure but the scoreboard, they should have lost comfortably. A confident Australian (is there really any other sort?) is a formidable foe and this match should be an absolute cracker. Fans on either side of the ditch will nervously take their favourites by a few points, the neutrals may be divided pretty evenly and a suggestion that New Zealand will win by the odd score is not made with the confidence that should send anyone rushing to the betting shop.

TEAMS:
New Zealand: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Keven Mealamu, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Sam Whitelock, 5. Brad Thorn, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Richie McCaw (capt), 8. Kieran Read, 9. Piri Weepu, 10. Aaron Cruden, 11. Richard Kahui, 12. Ma'a Nonu, 13. Conrad Smith, 14. Cory Jane, 15. Israel Dagg.

Reserves: 16. Andrew Hore, 17. Ben Franks, 18. Ali Williams, 19. Victor Vito, 20. Andy Ellis, 21. Stephen Donald, 22. Sonny Bill Williams.

Australia: 1. Sekope Kepu, 2. Stephen Moore, 3. Ben Alexander, 4. Daniel Vickerman, 5. James Horwill (capt), 6. Rocky Elsom, 7. David Pocock, 8. Radike Samo, 9. Will Genia, 10. Quade Cooper, 11. Digby Ioane, 12. Pat McCabe, 13. Adam Ashley-Cooper or Anthony Fainga'a, 14. James O'Connor, 15. Kurtley Beale or Ashley-Cooper.

Reserves: 16. Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17. James Slipper, 18. Rob Simmons, 19. Ben McCalman, 20. Luke Burgess, 21. Berrick Barnes, 22. Fainga'a or Rob Horne.

REFEREE: Craig Joubert (South Africa)