Aging All Blacks to take on Wallabies

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The Independent Online

It's been billed as a preview of this year's World Cup final. But tomorrow's Bledisloe Cup opener also has a whiff of the 2003 tournament decider about it. New Zealand - a nation that delighted in lampooning the Dad's Army (average age a shade over 28) sent out to play by Clive Woodward - will field a side with an average age of 29.

What chance a drop goal to decide it? Not much.

Babyfaced backbreaker Owen Franks will be the youngest All Black, though at 23 he is senior to eight of the Wallabies. Regardless, Wallabies vice-captain David Pocock, 23, picked youth to have its day. “They're a lot more experienced than us but as a team we've been preparing well and we believe in where we're going as a team,” he said. “If you're good enough, age shouldn't matter too much.”

The mutterings in the terraces suggest the All Blacks are a team struggling to hold a peak, while the Wallabies are the game's rising force.

While both coaches have named sides that look close to their first-choice lineups, much of the attention will be on the two No 10s, the game's benchmark, Dan Carter, and the next big thing, Wallaby Quade Cooper.

Cooper says there will be no change from his high-tempo, high-risk play and his coach Robbie Deans backs him. "There's no point picking blokes and then shackling them," Deans said. "There will be a lot of rugby played. Neither side will have walked off the ground without having chanced their arm.”

Carter controlled last week's comfortable victory over the Springboks with mean efficiency and a few touches of casual brilliance. But tomorrow, both flyhalves - and Carter in particular - might be reluctant to kick deep. There's nothing efficient about feeding counter-attacking opportunities to Cooper and the clever full-back Kurtley Beale. But while a deep kick might be out, wide runners won't want to be caught in possession in their own half with Pocock and Richie McCaw on hand to win possession or penalties at the breakdown.

So for the All Blacks a right old bit of tight-five biff would seem to be on the cards, the black pack backing itself - as ever - in set-pieces against their Aussie counterparts.

Deans insists his men aren't thinking about the possibility of meeting the All Blacks in the October 23 final.

"That's miles away. We're not even thinking about that stuff now," he said. "[Tomorrow] is a great occasion. It will be an epic Bledisloe encounter. There's been some great ones over the years and I'm backing this will be a great game.”

But, despite the thumpings both teams meted out to the Springboks over the past fortnight (Australia 39-20, the All Blacks 40-7), Deans knows that he still needs a respectable showing against the All Blacks to atone for the humiliation of a season-opening defeat at the hands, shoulders and thighs of Samoa.

All Black coach Graham Henry doesn't mind admitting he has an eye on the big show which begins in five weeks. "We've got to keep an eye to the future, so the idea is to try to give everybody an opportunity to be selected for the Rugby World Cup and be given an opportunity to show their ability,'' he said.

But with weakened lineups expected for the next Bledisloe Cup test in Brisbane in a fortnight, this could be the last chance to flex real muscle before the World Cup. "There is no doubt that the intensity levels will rise for this test," said Henry.