The Bledisloe Cup is named after a former Governor-General of New Zealand, who worked hard to foster ties between his country and Australia in the 1930s. How ironic it is, then, that it has turned into such a fierce and bitter rivalry, with tomorrow’s game in Sydney set to be no different.
The two teams come into the game in vastly different situations. New Zealand are the holders, the favourites and comfortably the best team in world rugby on their day. When everything clicks, it’s hard for anyone to keep up with them. They are settled, with established partnerships all over the park. Australia, by contrast, are in transition, with a debutant in the most important position on the pitch and several other rookies that have only recently made the step up to test rugby.
This will work one of two ways – the new boys, unburdened by the weight of recent history and with no experience of the crushing losses to their Tasman neighbours will play with abandon and give the mighty All Blacks a run for their money. Or, they will be overwhelmed by a vastly more experienced team with years of playing together under their belts. As neutrals we hope for the former; as experienced rugby viewers we expect the latter.
A core of experienced players – Moore, Horwill, Genia, Ashley-Cooper – will have to lead a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters into battle. The aforementioned Genia is one of the Wallabies’ true world-class stars, while Israel Folau has the potential to join those ranks if he can continue his form from the Lions series. In the pack much responsibility falls on the shoulders of James Slipper, who has the unenviable task of proving to the world that the Australians aren’t as bad at scrummaging as we all think they are. How they go under the new laws will be intriguing to see. Ben Mowen – excellent with a number six on his back during the Lions series – switches to number eight and how/if he adapts his game will be interesting.
There have been a few injury withdrawals from the New Zealand squad, but the quality they can call on in reserve is astounding. Missing Dan Carter, the best fly-half in the world? Call up consecutive Super Rugby title-winning Aaron Cruden. One of the players of the season, Liam Messam, crocked? Call up a starting-debutant who has had an astonishing Super Rugby season, Stephen Luatua. The production line of talent is seemingly never-ending. That said, Ma’a Nonu had a woefully poor season for the Highlanders, but he does seem to be a different player in an All Black jersey, and his partnership with Conrad Smith is the best established – and probably outright best – centre pairing in the world.
All eyes on
Ewen McKenzie, to the welcome surprise of most Australians, has plumped for Matt Toomua at outside half, rather than the man he coaches at club level, Quade Cooper. Love him or loathe him, Cooper has vastly more international experience than Toomua, and although the Brumbie debutant is a safer option in terms of his style of play, it is still a hugely risky ploy to throw him head first into a game of such magnitude. If McCaw, Read et al can get in his face early on there could be a few nervy errors in the opening exchanges.
Most of the talk has been about the return of Richie McCaw to the New Zealand back row, but the man next to him is arguably equally as important to the All Black cause, particularly now Messam is absent. Kieran Read is widely regarded as the best no.8 in the world, and for good reason. He has the complete skillset – power, pace, work rate and technique. With an inexperienced Australian backrow opposite him, he and McCaw will fancy their chances.
Head to head: Michael Hooper vs Richie McCaw
McCaw needs no introduction. He may have been out of the game for a while, but he is still the same old gnarled, pilfering warrior that he has always been. Michael Hooper is prodigiously talented and has shown well in the Green and Gold jersey thus far, but will need to be at his absolute best tomorrow. McCaw’s excellence at the breakdown is well-documented, and it is in this area that Hooper will need to be most alert. The Australian is a capable loose forward, with an impressive turn of pace, but perhaps does not possess the technical nous of McCaw.
Historically, Australia have had their most success against New Zealand in the capital, and of the stadiums in the city tomorrow’s venue, ANZ Stadium, is second only to the SCG in terms of Australian Bledisloe wins. That said, it is going to take much more than history for Australia to overcome the All Blacks tomorrow. A new team needs to gel, and gel quickly, around a debutant pivot who must have a flawless game in his first taste of international rugby. It all seems like a bit too much for Australia. New Zealand by 14.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Picture: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images