The All Blacks find themselves under a huge amount of internal and external pressure ahead of their Rugby World Cup semi-final against Trans-Tasman rivals Australia at Eden Park on Sunday.
Perennial world number one New Zealand have developed an unwanted reputation as World Cup chokers, having not won the Webb Ellis Trophy for 24 years since their triumph on home soil at the inaugural 1987 edition.
Spicing up New Zealand’s quest to reach the October 23 final against either Wales or France, is their showdown with Robbie Deans’s twice world champions, who have conquered the All Blacks in their only semi-final encounters in 1991 and 2003.
The tension appears to be building on the All Blacks, playing without match-winning goalkicker Dan Carter and nursing their inspirational skipper and flanker Richie McCaw through a niggling right foot injury.
McCaw has been named in the New Zealand team, but he has not trained and has been placed in cotton wool to ensure he makes it on to the ground where his mere presence and leadership lifts his team-mates.
“The big thing is that he has to take to the track and he’s got a niggling foot injury and the more we keep him off it the more chance he’s got of playing 80 minutes over the weekend, it’s as simple as that,” said All Blacks coach Graham Henry.
Aaron Cruden, 22, not chosen in the original 30-man squad, will become the All Blacks’ third fly-half of the tournament on the back of just seven Tests after both Carter and stand-in Colin Slade were ruled out with groin injuries.
Cruden will be targeted by the Wallabies after his shaky performance against them in Sydney last year.
He struggled to find his rhythm and was replaced by Slade mid-way through the second spell and had to watch from the sidelines as the Kiwis fought back to snatch an unlikely 23-22 win 13 months ago.
“In Cruden’s case he’s a year or so older and a lot more experienced and I think that’s important,” Henry said. “That was probably his first big Test match and he’s learnt from that experience.”
New Zealand strung together 10 consecutive wins over the Wallabies until James O’Connor’s last-ditch winning conversion kick claimed a 26-24 win in Hong Kong in October last year.
Australia, rebuilt under Kiwi Deans out of the ruins of their shattering 2007 World Cup quarter-final loss to England in Marseille, have developed a brilliant attacking young backline.
But their plans for Sunday’s match have been disrupted by a hamstring injury to Kurtley Beale. The Wallabies are set to give the gifted full-back, paired alongside Adam Ashley-Cooper at 15 in Friday’s team announcement, every chance to regain full fitness.
“We will leave it as long as we can before making a decision,” said Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said Friday. “It will be tough on Kurtley if he has to miss this one, but we will take no chances.”
Australia’s campaign faltered with a shock 15-6 pool loss to Ireland, but they regrouped and showed commendable courage to beat defending champions South Africa 11-9 in last weekend’s quarter-finals.
Australia have been emphasising the excruciating pressure of national expectations on the All Blacks, with talented but erratic fly-half Quade Cooper saying: “They’ve supposed to have won this World Cup for the past three tournaments and this is no different.
“There’s a lot of pressure on them to win this competition on their home soil.”
However, the Wallabies, who beat New Zealand in the semi-finals of both the 1991 and 2003 World Cups, have not won a Test at Eden Park since 1986.
But former All Black Deans said: “The circumstances this weekend are unique.
“It’s a tough place to play, and those are impressive numbers for sure, but they don’t matter once Sunday night’s match kicks off.
“Rugby World Cup elimination matches are stand alone contests. The pressure is divided equally on both sides as there is no tomorrow.”