PREVIEW: Australia v New Zealand
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND ONE: Australia will set out to overturn 14 years of All Blacks torment when they open their Rugby Championship title defence against their New Zealand nemesis in Sydney on Saturday.
The Wallabies have won just one of their last 13 encounters with the world champions and have not held the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup since 2002 against the dominant All Blacks.
Australia thought the chance of finally mastering the Kiwi powerhouse had arrived following the retirement of legends Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, but New Zealand will again start favourites after tossing aside Wales 3-0 in their home series last June.
In contrast, the Wallabies were second best to Six Nations champions England in a three-Test home series and including last year's World Cup Final defeat to the All Blacks have lost their last four internationals.
Coach Michael Cheika, who has bolstered his side with three overseas-based stars, says the All Blacks rate the Wallabies as having no chance of winning.
"We know they think we're no chance to do anything and they're validated, I suppose, we haven't beaten them for ages in the series so it's understandable that they would think that," Cheika said.
But under Cheika the Wallabies won the corresponding Rugby Championship Test 27-19 in Sydney last year on the way to claiming the tournament, which also includes South Africa and Argentina.
Cheika has included France-based trio Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Will Genia while making a key change in the forwards with Ben McCalman preferred at blindside flank to Scott Fardy.
Wing Ashley-Cooper, centre Giteau and scrumhalf Genia, with 282 Test experience between them, along with World Cup lock Kane Douglas return after missing the home series 3-0 loss to Eddie Jones's England a few months back.
"I've made those selections because I think they'll add to the type of game that we'll play on Saturday," Cheika said.
"Fardy has been in the team for a fair while now and Ben's been putting pressure on at different times and every time he steps out to play for Australia. He's earned the opportunity."
Counterpart Steve Hansen selected Beauden Barrett over Aaron Cruden at flyhalf in the first meeting between the two Southern Hemisphere rivals since the All Blacks beat the Wallabies 34-17 in the World Cup Final at Twickenham last October.
Cruden started in the first two Tests against Wales in June before Barrett took over for the third Test and then guided the Hurricanes to their first Super Rugby crown to win the nod for the All Blacks' most contested position.
Flank Sam Cane has been cleared to play after suffering concussion late in the Super Rugby season but hooker Dane Coles remains sidelined with a rib injury.
"This Test match will be another stepping stone in the re-establishment of this group on the international stage and we know that Australia will throw everything at us, which is what Test rugby is all about," Hansen said.
"With more than 800 Test caps of experience in our matchday 23, I'm confident we have the experience to deal with the challenge.
"We're also playing for the Bledisloe Cup, which after the Rugby World Cup, is probably the most important trophy we play for. Both teams will be desperate to get their hands on it which will create added pressure."
Players to watch:
For Australia: David Pocock is a breakdown master and will play a key part in trying to win turnover ball for his team. Captain Stephen Moore was exceptional in open play for the Brumbies this year and he will again look to lead from the front. In the backline, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau are classy players and will give the Australians something extra on attack, while flyhalf Bernard Foley can be a match winner as well.
For New Zealand: Flyhalf Beauden Barrett can create something out of nothing on attack and his kicking game was also fantastic during Super Rugby. The back three of Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo will also be hard to contain if they are given enough ball. In the pack, Brodie Retallick is one of the best locks in the world, while captain Kieran Read is a player with a big skill set on attack and on defence.
Head to head: Kieran Read and David Pocock are two very different No.8s and it will be interesting to see how they go in Sydney. Locks Brodie Retallick and Kane Douglas are almost in the same mould physically, but the former is a much better line-out exponent. In the backline, Beauden Barrett and Bernard Foley will both be looking to control the game from the pivot position.
Prediction: The Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002, with the All Blacks winning or retaining the trophy 13 times since then. Between them Australia (2011 & 2015) and New Zealand (2010, 2012, 2013 & 2014) have won the last six editions of The Rugby Championship; Australia are aiming for back to back titles for the first time since 2000-2001. The All Blacks have lost just one of their last 13 against Australia (W10, D2); their 10 victories in that run have come by an average margin of 16 points. New Zealand have lost just one of their last six at ANZ Stadium (W4, D1), whilst Australia have lost seven of their last 10 at the same venue (W2, D1). Steve Hansen's side have won their last 11 on the bounce by an average margin of 27 points; only South Africa have managed to finish within 10 points of the All Blacks in that time. New Zealand have not lost their opening fixture of The Rugby Championship since 2005 (v South Africa), winning nine and drawing one since then; overall the All Blacks have won 17 of their 20 opening matches (D1, L2). The All Blacks have scored at least one try in each of their last 25 games, the longest current run in Test rugby after Fiji's run of 34 games came to an end in June against Japan. Australia have lost their last four Tests in a row and have not lost five on the bounce since a run of seven consecutive defeats in 2005; the fifth defeat in that run came against New Zealand. The Wallabies are just 35 points away from scoring their 2000th in the Tri Nations and The Rugby Championship; the All Blacks (2564) were the first team to pass the 2,000 point mark, in September 2012 against Argentina. Julian Savea has scored 39 tries in 43 games for New Zealand, and one more try would make him just the fifth All Black to reach 40 Test tries (Doug Howlett – 49, Christian Cullen – 46, Joe Rokocoko – 46 & Jeff Wilson – 44). Although it does not look like the strongest of New Zealand teams, the Kiwis have a strong winning culture and will edge this one by five points.
AFP & @rugby365com