Rugby: Bledisloe Battle Kicks Off New Tournament in Style
Sydney. Australia and New Zealand clash in the opening round of the newly expanded Rugby Championship on Saturday, with history suggesting the Bledisloe Cup battle could decide the eventual destination of the title.
Australia beat New Zealand in Brisbane last year on the way to ending their trans-Tasman rivals’ run of seven titles in nine seasons and a similarly strong showing in Sydney is crucial to their hopes of success ahead of the return fixture in Auckland.
The All Blacks are favourites for Saturday’s match, and the title, after exacting revenge for last season’s loss with a comfortable 20-6 win in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals last October. Added to that, the current New Zealand squad looks stronger than the World Cup-winning one, with an injury-free Dan Carter back in the number 10 shirt.
For Australia things are less clear, even though bookmakers rate the Wallabies as the All Blacks’s only serious rivals for the title ahead of South Africa and new boys Argentina.
Coach Robbie Deans has opted to start with just six of the 15 who started the World Cup semi-final in Auckland 10 months ago.
“You’d think he’s either admitted to himself he got it wrong for the semi-final or he wants to play a different game and doesn’t have the confidence in those guys to do it,” said New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, who has won all three of his matches since replacing Graham Henry.
The All Blacks, who beat Ireland 60-0 last time out, expect to maintain their hold on the Bledisloe Cup they last surrendered in 2002 but the Australians have had longer to prepare because of their franchises early Super Rugby exits.
Deans needs to show he has made best use of that time with his position under renewed scrutiny since the Wallabies slumped to a miserable 9-6 home loss to Scotland in June.
The subsequent 3-0 series win against a talented but erratic Wales did little to boost confidence, with two of the three victories clinched through late penalties.
With New Zealand captain Richie McCaw back in his favoured openside flanker position and the visitors expected to dominate up front, much will depend on what Berrick Barnes can do at flyhalf for the Wallabies.
Barnes owed his initial selection against Wales to an injury to Quade Cooper but performed well and the latter has failed to even make Australia’s bench for Saturday.
Will Genia will line up inside Barnes at scrumhalf, with Anthony Fainga’a replacing the injured Pat McCabe at inside centre in one of just two changes to the side that scraped a 20-19 win over Wales in Sydney.
“Berrick played very well through June and we had good continuity prior to the mishap with Pat McCabe, so it was pretty straightforward,” Deans said.
Dave Dennis comes in at blindside flanker for the other personnel change, with Scott Higginbotham switching to number eight as cover for the injured Wycliff Palu.
“I’m expecting a baptism of fire, but that’s what you play for,” Dennis said. “I played them at junior level, but obviously playing a top team is a whole new experience.” For New Zealand, Carter lines up having scored 270 points in 21 tests against Australia and an injury to Conrad Smith has opened the door for Ma’a Nonu to partner Sonny Bill Williams in the centres.
“Sonny and Ma’a, they are some of the best midfielders in the game,” Australia back Adam Ashley-Cooper said. “Obviously, the combination of those two is fairly new but that certainly won’t deter from the fact they are a great midfield pair and great inside backs.”
The twin Bledisloe Cup encounters will be Williams’ last New Zealand appearances for the foreseeable future since the hulking back is headed to ply his trade in Japan.
Elsewhere, Hansen will hand Crusaders lock Luke Romano what will be only his second cap, while Liam Messam gets the nod at blindside flanker after his standout showings for Super Rugby champions the Waikato Chiefs.
Teams: Australia: Kurtley Beale, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne, Anthony Fainga’a, Digby Ioane, Berrick Barnes, Will Genia; Scott Higginbotham, David Pocock (captain), Dave Dennis, Nathan Sharpe, Sitaleki Timani, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota Nau, Benn Robinson.
Replacements: Stephen Moore, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Radike Samo, Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps, Drew Mitchell.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.