New Zealand v Australia: Prediction and teams
BLEDISLOE CUP ROUND ONE: New Zealand and Australia will play the first Test since the pandemic, when they go head-to-head in Wellington on Sunday.
This match will be played against a backdrop of disagreement and tension, after the chaos caused by the COVID-19-enforced lockdown opened up deep divisions.
The All Blacks and the Wallabies will take to the field in front of a packed, largely facemask-free crowd in Wellington just under a year since their last games, at the World Cup in Japan.
The on-pitch hostilities follow a torrid period this year when the two unions have quarrelled over the Rugby Championship internationals and Super Rugby, whose 25-year run has come crashing to a halt.
The opening Bledisloe Cup Test, the first international since COVID-19 halted the Six Nations in March, will be followed by a second next week in Auckland, before the reformatted Rugby Championship starts in Australia on October 31.
Among rugby’s many changes since Japan last year, both teams have new coaches already looking ahead to the next World Cup in 2023.
The All Blacks are under Ian Foster, who took over after eight years as assistant to Steve Hansen, while the Wallabies turned to New Zealander Dave Rennie after Michael Cheika’s departure.
Foster said memories of last year’s failed World Cup campaign have already been laid to rest by the three-time world champions.
“We don’t need that burden,” Foster said.
“This is about this team.
“It’s about looking at the foundations and making sure we set that in this Test and subsequent ones to make sure we can launch into the next period.”
(Continue below … )
‘We have to be aggressive’
The Wallabies’ Rennie, a Wellington native, has never coached at Test level before, but he knows exactly what he wants from his team.
“We have to be really aggressive, to try to force them to kick or to turn over some pill,” he said.
After surviving on Zoom calls with coaches and players for part of the year, Foster and Rennie get to launch their head-coach careers in front of a big crowd – days after New Zealand declared victory over its second wave of COVID-19.
There is significance for both teams, as New Zealand rate the Bledisloe Cup as second in importance only to the World Cup and have held it for the past 18 years.
That domination has infuriated Australia and the depth of emotion heading into Sunday’s clash – the first of four in the series, including two in the Rugby Championship – was underscored by Wallabies centre Matt To’omua.
He proclaimed that Australians “probably want that Bledisloe Cup back in Australia almost more than we want the World Cup”.
Rennie has made 13 changes to the starting XV since the Wallabies’ last outing, the 40-16 demolition by England in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Only captain Michael Hooper, playing his 100th Test, and wing Marika Koroibete survive from that mauling, while Rennie has gambled on three debutants in his maiden Test starting line-up – lock Harry Wilson and outside backs Hunter Paisami and Filipo Daugunu.
He has also packed experience on the bench where Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons and Reece Hodge have 237 Tests between them, laying the platform for an interesting closing quarter.
‘Fast, furious game’
Foster opted to start with arguably his top line-up, which includes nine starters from their 19-7 loss to England in the World Cup semifinals, and has three uncapped players on the bench.
The most debated part of the All Blacks’ selection centres on flyhalf, where Foster has retained Richie Mo’unga at pivot and initially had Beauden Barrett at fullback.
However, a late change – after Barrett’s Achille flared up at training on Friday – saw Damian McKenzie start at No.15.
“It’s a selection for this Test,” he stressed.
“Our way is to pick a group we think can play our game well and you clearly see we’ve gone down the side of some players who have got a little bit of experience under pressure when the structure starts to break up.”
Foster added: “I think it’s going to be a fast, furious game from both teams.”
However, Rennie, unfazed by plotting to beat his home country, believes the key to beating the All Blacks is for the Wallabies to move away from their running game.
“We’ve got to be able to shape their defence through smart kicking options – being prepared to play, but if the picture changes being prepared to kick from wide channels or put up contested balls,” he said.
Players to watch
For New Zealand: There is no doubt the withdrawal of Beauden Barrett and inclusion of Damian McKenzie at fullback, Jordie Barrett on the wing and Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf will receive some intense scrutiny. Another intriguing selection by the new All Black coach is Rieko Ioane at outside centre – a popular trend by the Kiwis to take big, strong wings and ‘convert’ them into centres. Then there is the captaincy of Sam Cane that will result in some intense scrutiny.
For Australia: Where to start? In a starting XV that features 13 changes from the Wallabies’ last outing, a 16-40 loss to England in the World Cup quarterfinals last October, the entire team is under scrutiny. Perhaps we can look at the two players who retained their places – captain Michael Hooper as openside flank and wing Marika Koroibete. James O’Connor at flyhalf could spark something for the Aussies.
Head to head
This game is littered with entertaining face-offs. Perhaps one of the most critical backline battles will be at flyhalf – the tactical nous of Richie Mo’unga (New Zealand) against the creative skills of James O’Connor (Australia). The latter is now a very mature version of the prodigious talent that burst onto the scene a decade ago. The battle of the captains – Sam Cane (New Zealand) against Michael Hooper (Australia) – will also be worth the entry ticket. Then the set-piece battle – Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Codie Taylor and Joe Moody (New Zealand) versus Matt Philip, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga’a and James Slipper (Australia) – is where the All Blacks have a real edge.
@rugby365com: New Zealand by 18 points
New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Jordie Barrett, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Tupou Vaai, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 Thomas Perenara, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Caleb Clarke.
Australia: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Filipo Daugunu, 13 Hunter Paisami, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 James O’Connor, 9 Nic White, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Harry Wilson, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Rob Valetini, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Noah Lolesio, 23 Reece Hodge.
Date: Sunday, October 11
Venue: Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 16.00 (14.00 AEDT; 03,00 GMT)
Expected weather: Mostly cloudy with a stiff breeze – gusts of 40 km/h. High of 17°C and low of 12°C
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keefe, Angus Gardner
TMO: Mike Fraser
* Additional reporting by @rugby365com