Tuqiri questions the strength of All Blacks magic

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The Independent Online

The Australia wing Lote Tuqiri thinks the All Blacks have lost their aura.

"In the past, we may have been beaten almost before we've run on to the field against them," he said yesterday. "But we have moved on from there and having Robbie Deans as coach has certainly instilled a lot of confidence into the squad.

"I actually think the South Africans are the benchmark team in world rugby right now," he added, before suggesting, somewhat disparagingly, that "the All Blacks are always up there, I suppose."

Tuqiri and his Wallaby team-mates have a chance to prove his theory correct when they take on New Zealand in today's Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations match in Sydney.

Seven days after upsetting South Africa, the world champions, in Perth, Australia must prove they can back up such a big win and show consistency. They will be without their captain, the centre Stirling Mortlock, who was concussed at Perth, so the flanker George Smith leads the side.

This is the most eagerly awaited trans-Tasman Test for years, purely because it represents the first international meeting of two Kiwi coaches – Deans and Graham Henry. The latter, who kept his All Black job after failing at last year's World Cup, when many New Zealanders wanted the former to succeed, is under pressure to deliver with a side riddled by injuries and the loss of so many players overseas.

The absence of Henry's captain, Richie McCaw, thanks to an ankle problem is a blow. Daniel Braid fills McCaw's place on the open-side flank and should improve his side's work at the breakdown from Dunedin, where they lost to South Africa two weeks ago. The experienced locks Ali Williams and Brad Thorn are back, as is the tight-head prop Greg Somerville.

New Zealand did not arrive in Sydney until teatime on Thursday, preferring to prepare back home in Wellington. Deans' name has been banned from the players' lips and Henry was playing it dead straight at his pre-match press conference yesterday.

Deans took the Christchurch-based Crusaders to the Super 14 title in May, their seventh, before defecting across the Tasman. He is enjoying a honeymoon in the job and Australian observers have been fulsome in their praise. Of course, all that would change with a defeat.

However, the Wallabies have the potential to build the strongest team in world rugby in the coming 24 months. Bob Dwyer, a former Australia coach, thinks his country has more talent emerging now than for some years. "What we've lacked in recent times has been the coaching staff," he said. "Well, we don't anymore; this guy [Deans] is the best in the world."

Contests between these two nations in any sport are full-on, highly confrontational affairs. This match will not be any different. The size of the prize available is matched only by the depths of despair awaiting the losers, though the two teams meet again in Auckland next week. Bragging rights in this part of the world are wielded like swords. They don't do subtlety.

The particular intrigue this week is to be found in the fact that the sides seem reasonably matched. Perhaps, however, Tuqiri's words have given the All Blacks an extra incentive.

ANZ Stadium, Sydney; Sky Sports 2, 10.30am

Australia: A Ashley-Cooper; P Hynes, R Cross, B Barnes, L Tuqiri; M Giteau, L Burgess; B Robinson, S Moore, A Baxter, J Horwill, N Sharpe, R Elsom, G Smith (capt), W Palu. Replacements: T Polota-Nau, M Dunning, D Vickerman, P Waugh, S Cordingley, T Tahu, D Mitchell.

New Zealand: M Muliaina; A Tuitavake, R Kahui, M Nonu, S Sivivatu; D Carter, A Ellis; T Woodcock, A Hore, G Somerville, B Thorn, A Williams, R So'oialo (capt), D Braid, J Kaino. Replacements: K Mealamu, J Afoa, A Boric, S Lauaki, J Cowan, S Donald, C Smith.

Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).

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