As far as big rugby tests go, it hasn’t been like this since the All Blacks trudged off Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium 11 months ago.
And for coach Graham Henry and his new-look side, victory in Saturday’s Tri-Nations decider against the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium is phase one in rebuilding the blocks.
Outside of a World Cup it’s the most high-stakes match the All Blacks will face; a shot at their fourth consecutive Tri-Nations title and the chance to defend their beloved Bledisloe Cup for a fifth year.
It would be the longest Bledisloe tenure since it became an annual contest in the 1980s.
For Henry and coaching colleagues Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, it would be something of a personal triumph after the events of the past year.
Controversially retained ahead of Robbie Deans, Henry’s support was at its lowest ebb when Deans masterminded the Wallabies’ 34-19 win in Sydney in July.
Another loss would have finished their Tri-Nations aspirations, but with captain Richie McCaw returning from injury to inspire them, Australia were dispatched 39-10 in the return match at Eden Park before a significant 19-0 win over the Springboks at Newlands.
“A win would be a big tick in the box for everyone involved in the group,” Henry said.
“They’ve had to stay alive. If we lost in Auckland or Cape Town we were history. The boys have gone through that experience for the past two test matches which have been big tests.”
Henry said tomorrow couldn’t have been plotted better for a finale to a closely-fought, fluctuating series.
But, Henry grimaced, victory still may not be enough to silence some of his and the team’s critics back home.
“It happens all the time, week in and week out, it’s not going to change. It’ll just be more pleasant, the knives won’t be as sharp if we win.”
Henry started the season without key men like Carl Hayman and Jerry Collins, and ushered in some new faces, the likes of Jerome Kaino and Richard Kahui to roles of regular starters in 2008.
Saturday’s the All Blacks play an unchanged side for a third consecutive test.
“The team’s got pretty close as a group of people and they play for each other. There’s been a gradual move up the graph as the season goes on and it needs to be another one on Saturday because we won’t win unless there is,” Henry said.
“Fifty percent of the side is new this year. It’s a positive when you think you lose half the team and still be competitive.”
The All Blacks are rated $NZ1.55 favourites to the Wallabies’ $NZ2.35 in Australia.
Key factors are McCaw’s overall influence, a potential edge for the All Blacks in the scrums and lineouts with experienced referee Jonathan Kaplan on patrol, and the cool control of Daniel Carter who outplayed his opposite Matt Giteau in Auckland.
Deans has gambled on just two back reserves and no specialist cover for Giteau, with Stirling Mortlock revealed as his backup if injury strikes. Mortlock has shifted to second five-eighth to cover for the injured Berrick Barnes, meaning an imposing midfield pairing with Ryan Cross.