AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Australia and New Zealand have wound up careful preparations for a Rugby World Cup semifinal which may be the biggest clash either team has played and the high point of a rugby test rivalry which has burned brightly for 108 years.
The Wallabies had a setback when fullback Kurtley Beale was ruled out on the eve of Sunday's match with a hamstring strain, forcing a last-minute rearrangement of their lineup and dulling but not blunting the counterattacking threat which is intrinsic to their game.
New Zealand expressed confidence in its methodical buildup to the match which may be an even greater occasion for the All Blacks than the Wallabies, saying they have sought to harness some of the excitement around the match without being overwhelmed by external pressure or expectation.
"You're dead right it's not (just) another game," All Blacks captain Richie McCaw told a news conference Saturday. "We acknowledge that for a start.
"The way you train and the things you've got to do during the week you've got to make sure are pretty similar or the same.
"I think when you get into tomorrow night, what's different is the excitement and obviously what's at the end (a World Cup final). The big thing is not to let that get on top of you and inhibit you from going out and playing well."
Both McCaw and Australia captain James Horwill said their squads were calm ahead of the match at Auckland's 60,000-seat Eden Park, a stadium where the Wallabies haven't won for 25 years.
"The boys are all relaxed and looking forward to it," Horwill said. "We understand the magnitude of the game at hand, but everyone has been calm about what's coming ahead. That's a good sign. You don't want to be walking around too stressed and uptight about what is coming."
McCaw said the All Blacks had also sought to carefully manage emotions around the match, dipping into the public hype which has washed around their central Auckland hotel, then retreating to compose themselves and to focus on Sunday's potentially epic match.
"You didn't want to get overhyped but you want to use the excitement as an opportunity to make sure you go out and perform well," McCaw said. "I think getting that balance right was key and I think the way we've built up this week was good. The guys have been excited but not over the top but you can feel there is a feeling there."
There has been much talk in the past week of the Australia-New Zealand rivalry, of Australia's Eden Park hoodoo, of the familiarity of the teams who have played each other twice already this season and 142 times since 1903. New Zealand has won 96 of those matches and Australia 41.
The All Blacks won the first of this season's Tri-Nations tests at Eden Park and Australia won the second at Brisbane; the last match either team played before the World Cup. In both cases, the winning team physically dominated its rival from the start and both have acknowledged that early dominance will be important on Sunday.
"We're planning on playing our game of rugby and not having to be on the back foot," Horwill said. "It's a world cup semifinal, we have to make sure we start the way we want to. There's a lot of Aussie fans here as well. We hope they'll be out here in voice."
McCaw was reluctant to discuss the importance of early physical domination, saying he didn't want to give away any aspect of his team's gameplan but his reticence was revealing.
"These games are about taking opportunities when they present and as the games get bigger and there's a bit more at stake those opportunities perhaps become a bit less and it's (about) the team that can nail them," he said.
"But I think you've seen over the years at World Cup, it's comes down to stopping the other team scoring and putting pressure on. It's really no different, it's just about having impact for longer and the teams that do that are the teams that prevail."
Sunday's match is rife with individual matchups which may be crucial to its outcome — the battle for the loose ball between McCaw and Australia's David Pocock is perhaps a classic case in point. But, as in most matches, the men in the No. 10 jersey, Australia's Quade Cooper and New Zealand Aaron Cruden, will play a vital part.
Cooper had a poor match in Australia's quarterfinal clash with South Africa but Horwill expressed confidence in the ability of his Wallabies and Queensland Reds teammate to bounce back.
"He'll have the best game that he's ever had, tomorrow night," Horwill said. "He's been training very well. He's been controlling the boys very well.
"He's just looking forward to it, as we all are. It's not just about one bloke. Everyone is pretty keen to talk about one person. It's about the group going out there and getting the job done. I know Quade is keen to the get the job done."
Australia: Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O'Connor, Anthony Fainga'a, Pat McCabe, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Radike Samo, David Pocock, Rocky Elsom, James Horwill (captain), Dan Vickerman, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu. Reserves: Tatafu Polota Nau, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Luke Burgess, Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams.
- New Zealand