Preview: Australia v New Zealand
World Cup holders New Zealand are chasing a record-breaking 18th consecutive win, while Australia want to end their Bledisloe Cup misery.
World Cup holders New Zealand are chasing a record-breaking 18th consecutive win, while Australia want to end their Bledisloe Cup misery in Saturday's Rugby Championship Test in Sydney.
The New Zealanders, following a 36-13 victory over England in their last match, are equal with the 17-Test winning runs of the 1965 to 1969 All Blacks and 1997 to 1998 Springboks.
The all-conquering Kiwis have not tasted defeat since going down to England at Twickenham in December 2012, and have not lost a match in the two four-nation Rugby Championship seasons, which also includes South Africa and Argentina.
What adds spice to this weekend's tournament kick-off is that the Wallabies are sensing their time has come after 11 years without the Bledisloe Cup, a symbol of trans-Tasman supremacy.
The Waratahs have given Wallaby supporters optimism with their thrilling 33-32 victory over New Zealand champions Crusaders in this month's Super Rugby Final.
The Australians, under coach Ewen McKenzie, have also won their last seven Tests, including sweeping their three-Test series against France in June.
It all adds to an intriguing scenario for the opening match of the Rugby Championship, a year out from the World Cup in England.
"The Bledisloe's the biggest cup we play for outside the World Cup, so winning this first one is important to give you a good start towards holding it," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
"We're not approaching this Test any differently because it's No.18, it's just about winning."
McKenzie said there was every reason for Australia to believe that a slice of history could be within their reach against the world champions.
"There's no mortgage on these sorts of things," he said.
"They've obviously dominated for a period of time and they're not going to hand it over. We've got to go out there and win it. We've got to get everything right."
McKenzie, who took over from Robbie Deans in the wake of Australia's home series loss to the British and Irish Lions last year, has made some big selection calls for the crunch game on Saturday.
He preferred the creative Kurtley Beale at flyhalf to his Waratahs teammate Bernard Foley, and left out former Wallaby skipper and lock James Horwill from his matchday 23.
"We've made what some people might consider bold selections. I think they're good selections for what we want to do," McKenzie said.
"Kurtley will bring some additional x-factor to our game. We feel that will suit our two-playmaker framework and ensure we have the right balance in those positions along with Matt Toomua.
"Against the All Blacks, you've got to go out there and have a crack ... we need to take a few risks."
Hansen has given the nod to Ben Smith as the All Blacks first-choice fullback ahead of World Cup winner Israel Dagg.
Dagg failed to even make the squad as Hansen stuck with the line-up that completed a 3-0 whitewash against England in June.
The run-on side features one injury-related change from the third England Test, with Wyatt Crockett in at loosehead prop for the sidelined Tony Woodcock.
It would have been two, with Conrad Smith initially returning from a hand injury, but with his wife expecting he returned to New Zealand on Friday and Malakai Fekitoa was re-instated as Ma'a Nonu's midfield partner.
"While we have been very happy with Israel Dagg's performances at No.15, Ben has come in and raised the bar to another level," Hansen said.
"The challenge for Israel now is to get his performances - when he gets the opportunity - to an even higher level.
"Australia are naturally going to play a fast game ... we're anticipating with the side they've selected that Australia are going to take us on in the backs and run us around a bit, so we'll embrace that and play our own game.
"First and foremost we've got to go out and achieve some sort of domination so that we can control the game."
Players to watch:
For Australia: Every time the Wallabies play the spotlight will be firmly on Israel Folau, while wings Pat McCabe and Rob Horne will be watched for their defensive capabilities. However, the biggest chunk of the pre-match attention has been on the selection of Kurtley Beale as flyhalf and no doubt the world will watch to see if he can spark the Wallabies to rare win over the All Blacks. Michael Hooper's leadership, his ability to make good decisions under intense pressure, will also be tested to the full.
For New Zealand: The late withdrawal of Conrad Smith has thrusted the skills of Malakai Fekitoa back into the spotlight. Now add the skills of Ben Smith and Aaron Smith and the Kiwis have some serious attacking threats in their backline. Kieran Read and Richie McCaw are always at the heart of any Kiwi victory and they will again be key components in the engine room.
Head to head: It doesn't get much more entertaining than seeing two of the best attacking fullbacks in the world - Israel Folau (Australia) versus Ben Smith (New Zealand). However, the more intriguing battle will be at flyhalf - Kurtley Beale (Wallabies) versus Aaron Cruden (All Blacks). As is the case with any Test, the backs can't perform without quality possession and for Australia the key is how their soft underbelly, the front row of Sekope Kepu, Nathan Charles and James Slipper stack up against New Zealand's Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Wyatt Crockett.
2013: New Zealand won 41-33, Dunedin
2013: New Zealand won 27-16, Wellington
2013: New Zealand won 47-29, Sydney
2012: Australia and New Zealand drew 18-all, Brisbane
2012: New Zealand won 22-0, Auckland
2012: New Zealand won 27-19, Sydney
2011: New Zealand won 20-6, Auckland (World Cup semifinal)
2011: Australia won 25-20, Brisbane
2011: New Zealand won 30-14, Auckland
2010: Australia won 26-24, Hong Kong
Prediction: This is a Test of records - New Zealand chasing that much-talked about world record for most consecutive wins (18) and Australia trying to end a decade-long Bledisloe Cup drought. The trans-Tasman baiting this week suggest there is a lot of additional feeling in what is always a spicy encounter. Given that the All Blacks are unbeaten in their last seven games against the Wallabies (Australia's last win was in fact back in 2011) there will be a good measure of desperation Down Under. New Zealand are also on a record 12-match winning run in the Rugby Championship and no other nation in the Southern Hemisphere championship (including the Tri-Nations) has won more than five in a row. New Zealand also have won their last four Tests against the Wallabies in Sydney, with their last defeat coming in July 2008 (19-34). However, records are made to be broken and the fact that the Wallabies are on a seven-Test winning streak means they have great form and a good measure of confidence. However, given the expected weather conditions - which include heavy rain - we feel the All Blacks will have the composure to sneak a win and claim the world record as their own - although it will be by less than 10 points.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Pat McCabe, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nic White, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Bernard Foley, 23 Tevita Kuridrani.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Joe Moody, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ryan Crotty.
Date: Saturday, August 16
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 20.00 (22.00 NZ time; 10.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Conditions will deteriorate throughout the day and by kick-off time there will be heavy rain and a wind of just on 30km/h. High of 18°C and a low of 11°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
AFP & rugby365