Despite all their struggles this year, the All Blacks have the chance to collect a second trophy for 2022 when they host Australia in Auckland tomorrow night.
The Eden Park clash was set to help determine who wrapped up the Rugby Championship honors.
It also came with the added spice of the All Blacks’ controversial win in last week’s dramatic first Bledisloe Cup test in Melbourne.
Although it was a win which saw them retain the Bledisloe for a 20th straight year, coach Ian Foster was in no doubt about the state of their trans-Tasman rivalry with the Wallabies.
“I’d say it’s alive and well, and kicking.
“It shows [there’s] a lot of passion.”
Passion at both ends of the spectrum.
All Blacks midfielder Rieko Ioane was well aware that the Australians arrived with an added edge, given the manner in which last week’s test ended.
“They’re just going to be a better side than they were last week, and both teams are looking to do that.
“The pack they chose last week was pretty physical. They’re athletes that can play footy and want to run and tackle hard.
“We’re expecting more of [what they brought] last week but just at a higher intensity.”
That was saying something.
The intensity of the Melbourne match left captain Sam Cane, David Havili and Quinn Tupaea unavailable for selection this week.
Havili (concussion) and Tupaea’s (knee) injuries had, though, paved the way for a first Test start at second-five for Jordie Barrett, who would have his spot at fullback filled by older brother Beauden.
Jordie was confident in his ability to play in the number 12 jersey.
“I was a 10 until I was 15-years-old and then I slowly shuffled out to 12.
“Once I got to the professional level I was too skinny so I had to go out the back, but now I’ve got a bit more size on…
“It just presents another challenge at this level. I got a bit of a taste last week, and it’s another test at Eden Park against an Aussie side that will be hurting.”
But Barrett was also expecting to have some heavy traffic coming his way from a fired-up Australian outfit.
Wallabies prop Allan Alaalatoa said they were not only motivated by last week’s result, but the chance to end a losing streak at Eden Park stretching back to 1986.
“The All Blacks look at Eden Park as their fortress.
“They’ll be confident off the back of back-to-back wins [but] playing at home there’s an expectation from their home crowd to get the win.
“When you’re on the opposite team, those are the games you want to be a part of. It’s a huge motivating factor for us.”
Saturday night’s test would be followed by the Black Ferns final warm-up game for the World Cup starting here in New Zealand in two weeks time.
Having made the switch from the Black Ferns sevens squad, loose forward Sarah Hirini said the one-off test against Japan should strengthen their chances of defending their title.
“Building more combinations within the group.
“There will be probably a couple of changes, but being able to play Japan at Eden Park … will be a pretty special feeling.
“Getting the experience of playing in front of a home crowd again will be good going into the World Cup.
The All Blacks also wanted to carry momentum forward, with their end-of-year tour to Japan and the UK on the not-too-distant horizon.
But with all four teams technically capable of winning the Rugby Championship going into this weekend’s last two matches, Ian Foster insisted their focus was locked on the here and now.
“It’s been a very different one for all four teams in many ways.
“But it’s also pretty exciting from the Rugby Championship side that we’ve come to the last game and no one really knows.”
The All Blacks led the standings on points differential ahead of South Africa, who hosted Argentina in Durban on Sunday morning (NZ time).
Eden Park was sold out for Saturday’s double header.