Pride at stake in Bledisloe Cup dead rubber

The All Blacks and the Wallabies have plenty of pride to play for in the year’s final Bledisloe Cup clash here on Saturday, despite New Zealand’s sweep of their three previous encounters.

For either side, a win in the second-ever trans-Tasman Test on neutral soil — after last year’s ground-breaker in Hong Kong — will be a big boost for the ensuing European tours at the end of a sub-par year for both.

But a fresh left ankle injury on Thursday ruled out Wallabies vice captain and inside-centre Berrick Barnes, in a blow to Australia’s bid to stop their losing streak against the All Blacks at six.

New Zealand coach Graham Henry said the game “is very important for both sides as we look to gain momentum.” “As always, we are expecting there to be a lot of intensity and a real edge to this Test,” he added.

The All Blacks shamed Australia 33-6 in their last Test in Wellington in September.

Henry, in charge since 2004, has made only three changes to his starting line-up, bringing back veteran Rodney So’oialo to the number eight position for his fourth Test of this year.

So’oialo, once a first-choice selection for every All Blacks side, said he expected Australia “to be more focused.”

“It will be more difficult for us to come away with a win,” said the Samoan-born 30-year-old, who replaced injury-hit Kieran Read.

“But then we are ready for the challenge and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Steve Hansen, who has taken charge of offense in a recent reshuffle of coaching roles, said: “If we play entertaining rugby, that’s great. That’s been our style since 2004, playing rugby that we can be proud of and scoring tries.”

It has been a sub-par season for the All Blacks with five wins and four losses in Tests. Their backs seldom sparkled and the forwards were regularly outplayed, losing their world number-one status to South Africa.

In the Tri-Nations series, New Zealand lost three out of three to the Springboks but won all three against the Wallabies.

Australia’s under-fire coach Robbie Deans declared: “These are two proud nations, and the players are proud to be putting on their national jumpers. I’m sure that will reflect in their performance.”

He has dropped 105-capped flanker George Smith and three others for Tokyo, hoping to add an extra edge.

Deans, who took the Wallabies’ helm last year, also reinforced their back line, drafting Digby Ioane and Peter Hynes on the wings.

He moved Adam Ashley-Cooper to fullback, enabling Ryan Cross to slot in at outside-centre.

After Barnes’s pullout, Ashley-Cooper was moved again to inside-centre and teenager James O’Connor was brought off the bench into the fullback position.

The coach admitted the All Blacks had been “consistently better.” “The most obvious point of difference has been the All Blacks’ effectiveness around the contact and their composure under pressure,” he said.

“Ultimately that’s what we have to master, what we have to be more effective at.”

After losing five from six in the Tri Nations, Deans stripped Stirling Mortlock of the captaincy, handing it to flanker Rocky Elsom and bypassing senior players Smith and Matt Giteau to make Barnes the team vice captain.

The Wallabies will be looking to end a 236-minute try-scoring drought against the All Blacks since Barnes crossed the line in the fourth minute of their first Test in Auckland in July.

“That’s something we’ve talked about the last three weeks — trying to win back a lot of respect,” Barnes said before he was injured, looking ahead to the Wallabies’ Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland, their first in 25 years.

He said that a win over the All Blacks will “send a message to the other teams that we’re fair dinkum (genuine) as well.”

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