All Blacks primed to defend historic run at Eden Park fortress

Auckland (AFP) –


The All Blacks will not only be defending the Bledisloe Cup when they face the Wallabies on Saturday, but looking to preserve an unbeaten run at Auckland's Eden Park.

Their unbroken run of 19 years with the Cup and 27 years without a loss at the grounds known as "the fortress" are achievements that rile Australia.

To prepare for the Bledisloe, the Wallabies won a tense 2-1 series against Six Nations runners-up France and the All Blacks easily won Tests against Tonga and Fiji last month.

New Zealand's performance had Wallabies coach Dave Rennie planning to dominate up front and play a fast, physical and aerial game in the hope of claiming the three-Test series and ending the All Blacks' dominance.

The All Blacks have not been beaten at Eden Park, their spiritual home, in 44 Tests dating back to 1994. Australia have not won at the ground since 1986, nor held the Bledisloe Cup, which is contested annually by the two countries, since 2002.

- Slice of history -

While the All Blacks say they are focused on the game rather than extending records, the Wallabies see an opportunity to claim a slice of history.

None of the Wallabies were born when the team last won at Eden Park in 1986. Captain Michael Hooper said that, though he has not enjoyed repeatedly losing at Eden Park, younger members of the squad have been spared the pressure that comes with playing there.

"It wouldn't be good to put what everyone else says about Eden Park on to them," Hooper said.

"If the way they feel about it is all positive then happy days. It's great to have that sort of feeling and that sort of youthful 'I just want to get out there and play rugby' (sentiment)."

With the trans-Tasman bubble paused, the All Blacks will be further fuelled by back-to-back Tests at Eden Park before heading to Perth to round off the series.

"It's a hell of a stadium to play at, and a great challenge for us to go and play there two times in a row against a team that's probably pretty confident," All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor said.

All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith is aiming for peak performance to celebrate his 100th Test.

The All Blacks will play back-to-back Tests at Eden Park before heading to Perth to round off the Bledisloe Cup series
The All Blacks will play back-to-back Tests at Eden Park before heading to Perth to round off the Bledisloe Cup series MICHAEL BRADLEY AFP

"It's a special game, 100 for Nuggy (Smith) so that means a lot to us as well, just as much as winning the Bledisloe," added Richie Mo'unga, who was again preferred over Beauden Barrett to start at fly-half.

Barrett and his brother Jordie have been left on the bench, with Damian McKenzie starting at fullback and coach Ian Foster preferring Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece on the wings ahead of high-scoring Will Jordan, who has eight tries from five Tests.

Wallabies coach Rennie sees that as an area to be exploited.

"We'll be doing what we can with that back three. It's not the biggest back three in world rugby," he said, promising a repeat of the box-kicks that proved effective against the All Blacks last year.

In the usual pre-match verbal sparring, All Blacks coach Foster dismissed the Wallabies' talk of dominating in the critical forward battle.

"It's not about responding to external stimulus, it's about that internal drive in ourselves to be the best we can be. There'll be no surprises in the intensity," he said.

Teams (15-1)

New Zealand:

Damian McKenzie; Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Rieko Ioane; Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane; Sam Whitelock (capt), Brodie Retallick; Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, George Bower

Replacements: Dane Coles, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Angus Ta'avao, Scott Barrett, Luke Jacobson, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett.

Australia: Tom Banks, Jordan Petaia, Len Ikitau, Hunter Paisami, Andrew Kellaway; Noah Lolesio, Tate McDermott; Harry Wilson, Michael Hooper (capt), Rob Valetini; Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Darcy Swain; Allan Alaalatoa, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, James Slipper

Replacements: Jordan Uelese, Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Matt Philip, Fraser McReight, Jake Gordon, Matt To'omua, Reece Hodge