(Reuters) – Recent years have offered few moments where Australia could claim an advantage over the All Blacks in the second row but the Wallabies will head to Eden Park on Saturday in a rare position of strength in the locking positions.
Brodie Retallick’s shoulder injury comes as a huge relief for the Wallabies, who still have rueful memories of his marauding 2018 Rugby Championship campaign.
A constant menace at the breakdown and at lineout time, Retallick was instrumental in last year’s morale-sapping defeat of the hosts in Sydney, where his audacious feint, step and touch-line sprint was awarded World Rugby’s try of the year.
Scott Barrett’s red card in Perth last week and subsequent three-week suspension is another boost for Michael Cheika’s men.
Barrett’s high hit on Australia captain Michael Hooper on the stroke of halftime helped the Wallabies to a 47-26 win while ensuring a test of the All Blacks depth just six weeks out from the World Cup.
Not that the Wallabies are publicly celebrating.
“They’ve got a lot of good depth there in New Zealand,” Wallabies lock Rory Arnold, who started alongside Izack Rodda in Perth, told reporters in Melbourne.
“I’m sure the next bloke that comes in for those fellows will be just as good as they are.”
The All Blacks have offered no clues as to who the ‘next bloke’ will be, but Patrick Tuipulotu is the only lock with considerable test experience left in the squad after stalwart Sam Whitelock.
Four-test Jackson Hemopo and Vaea Fifita are also backups, though the latter has played all but one of his 11 tests as a loose forward.
The Wallabies, meanwhile, fielded five locks in their match-day squad in Perth, with Adam Coleman and Luke Jones on the bench and utility forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto starting at blindside flanker.
Even before Barrett’s dismissal the Wallabies’ beef proved decisive in the collisions and elicited an honest admission from hooker Dane Coles that the world champions had been outmuscled.
The sight of big men in gold jerseys sending All Blacks sprawling was a sweet one for long-suffering Wallabies fans but not the only obvious improvement in Australia’s game.
In the space of a year the lineout has been transformed from a national embarrassment into something of a force.
Australia lost eight of their 12 lineout throws in a chaotic start to last year’s Rugby Championship in Sydney but won a tournament-best 90% of them across their three matches this year.
“I don’t think we’ll be targeting the lineout saying we can get one over them,” said Arnold.
“But I think it’s going to be a very, very close contest.”
The Wallabies are constantly reminded of another statistic, that whether in good form or bad, they have not beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1986.
They will need to do so to claim the Bledisloe Cup — the annual series contested between the nations — for the first time since 2002. And the hosts rarely have two bad games in a row.
“It’s in their backyard, they’re a different beast there,” said Arnold.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Taoyuan, Taiwan; Editing by Peter Rutherford)