Australia look for strong showing in Sydney against All Blacks
AUSTRALIA AND New Zealand clash in the opening round of the newly expanded Rugby Championship tomorrow, 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 the game, 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’ 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 games the All Blacks have played since he replaced 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 outhalf 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 tomorrow’s clash.
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.
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.