Sniff of an upset in the air as Wallabies meet All Blacks in Bledisloe battle royale | Angus Fontaine

A strangely inconsistent and vulnerable New Zealand are still under siege ahead of the midweek Rugby Championship clash

And so it all comes down to this. Australia against New Zealand. The Bledisloe Cup on the line. Neither team is in form, with two dazzling wins and two dizzying losses apiece in this Rugby Championship. But in the fourth round a fortnight ago, the All Blacks rebounded to blitz Argentina 53-3 while the Wallabies crashed to earth, smashed 24-8 by South Africa. Now New Zealand on top of the table, Australia are third and either side can still win both trophies on offer.

Of the 152 Bledisloe Tests already played, New Zealand have won 108 and Australia 37, with seven drawn. The Wallabies have not won the Cup since 2002 but they get a chance to foil a 20th series loss this Thursday at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium. On home turf, against a weirdly inconsistent and vulnerable New Zealand, there is the sniff of an upset. After four defeats in 2022 – three at home – Ian Foster’s side is still under siege and the bulletproof All Blacks fear factor is gone. But do these misfiring Wallabies have the golden guns to take them out?

The hosts have a new old triggerman in Bernard Foley, replacing Noah Lolesio as five-eighth, after the young playmaker failed his concussion protocols this week. It gives Australia their fourth No 10 this season. And while it’s unlikely Lolesio sent shivers up All Blacks spines, Foley is 33, hasn’t run on for the Wallabies since 2019 and hasn’t played at all since May, when he failed to get his Kubota Spears into third-place in the Division One finals series.

The last time Australia called in a veteran five-eighth for his first Test in four years was the previous mid-week Test in 1994. That night David Knox – for many years a shadow to the Ella brothers and Lloyd McDermott at Matraville High and then at club level with Randwick – thoroughly dismantled the All Blacks and reminded the world that the Wallabies’ natural game is built on flair, daring, instinct, eccentricity and ruthlessness.

Alongside three future Australian coaches Eddie Jones, Ewen McKenzie and Michael Cheika, Knox was key master of the Galloping Greens side who took on the All Blacks at Coogee Oval in 1988. New Zealand had just put 106 points on Wales over two Tests and would crush Australia 32-7 and 30-9 the next month, but that afternoon they were given a torrid lesson in Australian running rugby by Knox and his Matraville teammates. It was the first (and last) time the All Blacks ever played a club side and risked their famous mystique again.

Knox went on to play 13 Tests across 13 years but the 1994 cameo was his masterpiece. Although George Gregan saved the game with his epic tackle on Jeff Wilson, Knox won it with his savvy. The match was 16 seconds old when he kicked for Jason Little to score and after 25 minutes of magic, he had the Wallabies ahead 17-3 and they hung on to win 20-16.

Caleb Clarke of the All Blacks performs the haka before the game against Argentina earlier this month.
Caleb Clarke of the All Blacks performs the haka before the game against Argentina earlier this month. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Australia’s coach Dave Rennie will have rolled tape on the All Blacks’ four defeats this year – Ireland’s 2-1 series win, the Springboks’ 26-10 victory in Mbombela and Argentina’s shock 25-18 upset in Christchurch, which were all won on the back of slow grinding play and kicks. But Knox’s highlight reel is the VHS Rennie and Foley should cuddle up with before Thursday night. For all their injuries, inconsistency and ill-discipline, the 2022 Wallabies have at least stayed true to the Australian attacking DNA, and tried to play positive, uptempo running rugby.

Foley is not the conjuror Knox was, but he can be calm under pressure and has soft hands and a fast pass. He reckons exposure to Japan’s “worldly game” has made him a better player than the one who played the last of his 71 Tests at the 2019 World Cup. If so, and if he can play a liberated and composed game outside new starting half Jake Gordon, it will buy Australia time to unleash speedmen Marika Koroibete, Tom Wright and No 15 Andrew Kellaway out wide to give themselves a chance.

From the grassy knoll at Marvel, there was hope a second and third gunmen might be deployed by Rennie. Kurtley Beale is back at top speed after recovering from a hamstring injury in February. A 95-Test veteran and proud Darug man, Beale, now 33, may not pack the zip of his early years but playing at centre, five-eighth or fullback, he has a verve and X-factor that can worry the All Blacks. Alas, he and the cruelly untested and potentially game-breaking winger Suliasi Vunivalu have been holstered from the matchday 23.

Asked how to beat the All Blacks this week, Koroibete replied simply: “More brutality.” If a new all-Melbourne-born backrow of Rob Leota, Pete Samu and Rob Valetini can torpedo the New Zealand playmakers and match their rivals at the breakdown, it’ll be the Bledisloe battle royale fans deserve. Whether the All Blacks tide is rising or falling, the Wallabies must hold fast and play the Australian game: shoot to thrill, or die trying.


Angus Fontaine

The GuardianTramp

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