Gregan's men face Eden Park whitewash

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The Independent Online

It would be as well for Aussie rugby supporters not to expect much from today's final Tri-Nations match of 2005, the meeting of New Zealand and Australia in Auckland. The All Blacks, having squeezed out South Africa last week, will reclaim the trophy if they beat the Wallabies at Eden Park.

Great furrows have lined Australian brows this week. The Wallabies have lost their last four Test matches, a dire run unknown for nearly a quarter of a century. They have lost their first three choices at fly-half, Stephen Larkham, Elton Flatley and Matt Giteau, to injury and will play their former rugby league full-back Matt Rogers in the No 10 jersey today. Rogers has played there before, but only as a schoolboy.

The Wallabies are in the midst of an injury crisis that has exposed the empty cupboards of Australian rugby. Their front row might be wily but it is weak, the second row is without its best operator, Daniel Vickerman, and the back-row combination has been changed yet again, a clear sign of selectorial uncertainty.

Three flankers - Rocky Elsom, Phil Waugh and George Smith - play in the absence through injury of the regular No 8 David Lyons. Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock, Wendell Sailor and Jeremy Paul are also missing.

The All Blacks have had injury concerns of their own this week, such was the intensity of the Dunedin encounter with the Springboks. The scrum-half Piri Weepu, who made significant progress as a Test player that evening, has shaken off a thigh strain to take his place, but doubt still remains over Leon MacDonald at fly-half.

The No 10 has a hip injury and a decision will not be made on his fitness until shortly before kick-off. But the difference in the back-up quality is marked. Luke McAlister, who helped to overwhelm the British and Irish Lions in the final Test, would step in if MacDonald did not make it.

Choosing the time and location to make rugby history is generally not the preserve of players. Thus, George Gregan will equal the world record of the England prop Jason Leonard with his 114th cap for the Wallabies, but bittersweet might be the word for such an experience, because Gregan's side is staring down the gun barrel.

Gregan's outstanding achievement has come against a cacophony of cries for his sacking by the Australian media, that traditionally mild-mannered, reticent body of men for whom extenuating circumstances are never allowed to delay the desires of a hanging party.

It is undeniable that Gregan is not the force he once was. But no scrum-half excels behind a beaten pack. The Australian front row seems to have lost its knack of milking penalties from stronger opponents, and their No 9 has been duly exposed.

New Zealand's status as the No 1 side in world rugby was confirmed by their victory over South Africa last weekend. The cynics would say that puts them in familiar surroundings, as they have consistently peaked between World Cups without being able to win one since 1987. But there is a growing substance to Graham Henry's squad, not least in their tight-forward play, that foretells of major difficulties for the other major nations in the build-up to the next World Cup in France in 2007.

Not that the All Blacks are duped by forecasts of a sporting slaughter beneath the Eden Park floodlights.

"Australia will play out of their skins in this match, we expect nothing less from them," Henry said. "They are a very proud sporting nation and will give everything they have, whatever the circumstances. That is their way."

It might not be the rout some predict. But it is only three weeks since the All Blacks beat Australia 30-13 in Sydney and for this battered, patched-up Wallaby side to stop the All Blacks in their own back yard will require something close to supernatural force.

The beleaguered Wallaby coach Eddie Jones says his team has little to lose. Which is true if you discount the prospect of a first Tri-Nations whitewash, a fifth successive Test loss and another defeat at the hands of their mortal enemy.

A celebratory party for Gregan? It looks doubtful.

New Zealand: M Muliaina; D Howlett, T Umaga (capt), A Mauger, J Rokocoko; L MacDonald, P Weepu; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, C Hayman, C Jack, A Williams, S Lauaki, R McCaw, R So'oialo. Replacements: D Whitcombe, G Somerville, J Ryan, M Holah, K Senio, L McAlister, C Smith.

Australia: D Mitchell; M Gerrard, C Rathbone, M Turinui, L Tuqiri; M Rogers, G Gregan (capt); B Young, B Cannon, A Baxter, M Chisholm, N Sharpe, R Elsom, P Waugh, G Smith. Replacements: A Freier, M Dunning, A Kanaar, J Roe, C Whitaker, L MacKay, L Johansson.

Referee: C White (England).

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