New Zealand can effectively close out this year's Tri Nations and complete a first ever 'three in a row' if they can overcome Australia in Sydney on Saturday (K.O. 11.05 Sky Sports).
With eight points in the bag versus five for Australia and two for South Africa, a win here will require South Africa to win both their home matches and gain bonus points in both while New Zealand fail to pick up a bonus point in their last outing in South Africa.
However, if Australia can get the win all three nations are firmly in the melting pot. Both sides acknowledge that this is the key game. "Because of the timing, the points table and the results so far this is the most critical game in the Tri Nations," Graham Henry said. "South Africa might have something to say about that in the next two weeks but it's the pinnacle game in the tournament at this point in time."
Compared to the buildup to the first match between the one and two ranked teams in the world, this one has been dripping respect and mutual admiration. The Wellington buildup had all the ingredients of a classic Southern Hemispere buildup - referee priming, personal vendettas and swingeing sideswipes.
This time, perhaps because Australia are wounded, it's a lot more muted. Or maybe it's the difference between a George Gregan interview and a Justin Marshall one. "They're always big Test matches - you like to gauge yourself on how you play against New Zealand, over the last decade if they haven't been the best team in the world they've been there or thereabouts," Wallabies captain George Gregan said.
Gregan celebrated his century of caps last week with a typically assured performance and this week has further cause for celebration as he equals David Campese's Australian record of 101 appearances.
The Wellington test was a complete washout for Australia, despite the respectable sounding 16-7 scoreline. In truth, they were beaten out the gate. They were lucky to get seven and in drier conditions the All Blacks would have run up a cricket score, such was their domination upfront and of possession. The Black pack physically destroyed their Aussie counterparts on the gainline and in set pieces.
But Sydney on Saturday will be a drier kettle of fish. And with Australia having returned to some kind of form with their 30-26 win over South Africa in the interim, we can expect them to turn up for this one.
Reasons to be cheerful are at least three, as Ian Dury might say. Firstly, against a much vaunted Springbok pack , Australia did very well indeed. They won the lineouts 22-10 courtesy of some nifty espionage work on the Boks' code via the referee's mic, according to Jake White and co. But all's fair in love, war and test rugby. Even better, the Aussie scrum, not rated at this rarefied level, performed very well against one of South Africa's main areas of focus.
Secondly, George Smith made a very effective return to the fold. On the front foot, the Wallaby backrow were dominant. What Australia lose in by way of lineout options (and that's debatable) they more than make up for in the way of ball carrying and competing on the deck. The Blacks can expect genuine competition for ball.
And thirdly, the Australian backs looked good when they were given some ball. In particular, Clyde Rathbone, Lote Tuqiri and Stephen Larkham displayed a real cuttign edge against the Boks. The controversial selection of South African Clyde Rathbone has given them a more rounded product than Wendell Sailor. Indeed it is his more rounded footballing skills that has made Tuqiri the more successul of the two high profile Australian league converts than Sailor. Tuqiri has emerged as one of the real stars of this tournament this season.
Finally, Australia are at home and they are stung. Their record against the Blacks in the Telstra Stadium reads four wins out of six, including the World Cup semi-final. As far as being stung goes, Henry reckons that the Wellington result is of greater psychological benefit to Australia than New Zealand. "They will use that game - they were embarrassed in the forward pack and that will give them extra steel, which they've shown already in Perth. I think the Wellington result is more to the Australian advantage than the All Blacks' advantage and we have to be aware of that."
All of that said, the All Blacks, despite only scoring two tries to date in the competition, are in a rich vein of form. Much like the Aussies though, they view matches against their Tasman neighbours as a measure of their progress. "I think this is the heart of Australian rugby ... and while we've won six games from six this season I think this will give us a measuring stick for where we're at," Henry said.
Paddy Power is quoting the match odds at 4/6 New Zealand, 6/5 Australia and 20/1 the draw. That seems about right and let's face it, which of us knows a poor bookie?