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|1.||James Slipper – Vice captain and a player that has really come into his own in recent times. Much improved scrummager.||7.5||Wyatt Crockett – Solid, if unspectacular, prop. Not Tony Woodcock, but not going to let his side down.||6|
|2.||Nathan Charles – Untested at this level, but has had a great season for the Force. Can he make the step up?||6||Dane Coles – One of the best hookers in open play in the world, but doubts remain over his line-out throwing, which will be targeted.||7|
|3.||Sekope Kepu – Comes into the game off the back of a superlative season for the Waratahs. He will hope to banish the Australians’ weak scrummaging reputation.||7||Owen Franks – Vastly experienced with 57 caps at the age of just 26. Will look to target less experienced Aussie front row.||7|
|4.||Sam Carter – Gritty, gnarled lock who won’t be in awe of his decorated opposition. Performed well in his first outing against France.||7||Brodie Retallick – Up there with the best ball-carrying second rows in the world. His first test burst against England essentially won them the game.||8.5|
|5.||Rob Simmons – Hard worker but not a second row that’s going to set the world alight.||6.5||Sam Whitelock – Line-out maestro whose work in the loose often goes unnoticed compared to his engine room partner.||8|
|6.||Scott Fardy – Workhorse in the back-row who also provides a very handy line-out option.||7.5||Jerome Kaino – Brilliantly strong carrier and general dogsbody in the New Zealand back-row. Superb season with the Blues.||8|
|7.||Michael Hooper (c) – Quick, strong and great at the breakdown. The gold standard in opensides worldwide at the moment||9||Richie McCaw (c) – Opposing captain and opposing breakdown specialist. Hooper won the battle in the Super Rugby final – can McCaw respond?||8|
|8.||Wycliff Palu – Hasn’t always performed on the international stage but has been another standout player for the Waratahs this season. Needs to be at his best against Read.||7.5||Kieran Read – IRB Player of the Year, and for a good reason. Came into brilliant form at the end of the season, particularly in Super Rugby semi-final.||9|
|9.||Nic White – Is emerging as McKenzie’s favourite in the post-Genia landscape. Needs a big performance with Phipps breathing down his neck.||7||Aaron Smith – Was an integral part of the Highlanders’ superb form this year. One of the best passes in the game, and great vision||8|
|10.||Kurtley Beale – Has had a superb season with the Waratahs, but mostly at 12. How will he cope with increased responsibility of fly-half? Could decide the outcome of the game.||8||Aaron Cruden – The main man once again in another Dan Carter-less side. Was majestic at times against England.||8|
|11.||Rob Horne – A bit of a utility man, but has done a brilliant job finishing off tries all season for the Tahs.||7.5||Julian Savea – Probably the best finisher in world rugby. Unfeasibly strong and deadly quick.||8.5|
|12.||Matt Toomua – Strong, direct-running centre who also has the vision of a fly-half. Expect he and Beale to interchange fluidly throughout the game.||8||Ma’a Nonu – We know how good he can be, but we know he can also be a liability. More often the former when he plays in an All Black jersey.||8|
|13.||Adam Ashley-Cooper – A man for the big occasion, as his performance in the Super Rugby final showed. There are few with a better understanding of the game.||8||Conrad Smith/Malakai Fekitoa – At time of writing, unsure who will start. One is a wily, intelligent runner and ace defender, the other a wrecking-ball with an equally impressive turn of pace. Both dangerous weapons.||8.5/8|
|14.||Pat McCabe – Completes a functional, if not terribly exciting, wing duo. Won’t let his side down, but probably just keeping the shirt warm for Speight.||7||Cory Jane – Often overshadowed for club and country by Savea, but the fact Smith hasn’t moved to the wing and Dagg been preferred at fullback tells you they rate him highly.||8|
|15.||Israel Folau – In a period of reasonably quiet form for club at the moment, he has proved in the past he loves a big stage. They don’t come any bigger than this.||9||Ben Smith – What a duel this is. The two best fullbacks in world rugby, head to head. Impossible to pick a winner right now.||9|
On paper, the All Blacks are comfortably out in front of their greatest rivals as we head into the opening game of the Rugby Championship. But the game is not played on paper, and the ratings do not tell you where these sides are psychologically. New Zealand, of course, will know they can win – when you haven’t lost for as long as they have, it becomes a habit. But Australia, too, will fancy their chances, now more than last year, despite their neighbours’ astonishing winning run.
England showed in June that the All Blacks are not infallible. They were a whisker away from a win. At the same time, the Wallabies were breezing past France, playing some brilliant rugby in the process. Detractors will still point to their front five as being an issue, and while it is not the strongest, it is certainly good enough to hold up against the All Blacks, arguably their weakest area. Indeed, they will not have the dominance there that South Africa enjoy, and so this could even be Australia’s best chance to upset the top two.
History shows us that the All Blacks start tournaments/series slowly, and the news that Conrad Smith might not be available will have disrupted them further. Australia have the confidence lent to them by the Waratahs’ Super Rugby win, many of them playing tomorrow against those they beat in that final. They are on home soil, and there is a real feel good vibe surrounding Australian rugby right now.
If not now, then when? They are greater than the sum of their parts, and could just spring a surprise this weekend. Australia by 2.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43