SYDNEY, Australia, Aug 17 – The All Blacks will be out to reassert their dominance as the wounded Wallabies look to the return of Kurtley Beale to trigger an upset in Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener in Sydney.
The world champions have been reviewing what went wrong in their unexpected series draw with the British and Irish Lions at home last month and are hell-bent on rebounding against the Australians in Sydney.
The Lions defied the odds to down the All Blacks 24-21 in Wellington to take their series to a decider only for the final Auckland match to end in a 15-15 stalemate.
That inability to put away the Lions raised doubts whether the All Blacks’ era of dominance was on the wane after they were shocked by Ireland 40-29 in Chicago last November.
The All Blacks have dominated the Wallabies — losing only three of their last 29 trans-Tasman encounters — and are expected to do it again as Australian rugby looks to emerge from a woeful season.
Sonny Bill Williams returns for the New Zealanders after serving his four-match suspension, while Jerome Kaino has been dropped for the Olympic stadium Test.
In a revamped line-up with six changes from the last Test side against the Lions, only halves Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith remain from the starting backline, while Damian McKenzie gets his chance at fullback.
Double World Cup winner Williams has not played for seven weeks since being suspended for a dangerous shoulder charge and a straight red card in the second Test against the Lions.
“We reviewed that (Lions) series comprehensively, and the management have done a lot on it as well,” All Blacks skipper Kieran Read said.
“Hopefully, it will show in this championship what we’ve learned.”
– Pressure on Cheika –
At stake against the Wallabies are not only points in the Rugby Championship, which also includes South Africa and Argentina, but also the Bledisloe Cup, the symbol of trans-Tasman rugby supremacy.
It has been firmly in New Zealand hands since 2003 and over the past 14 years the All Blacks and Wallabies have played each other 42 times with New Zealand winning 33, drawing two and losing seven.
“This Test will give us a great opportunity to gauge where we are at when comes to things we have been working on since the Lions tour,” coach Steve Hansen said.
The pressure is on coach Michael Cheika and his Wallabies after their shock home loss to Scotland in June and coming off a dreadful Super Rugby season where Australian sides were 0-26 against Kiwi opposition.
The return of inside-back Beale for his first Test since the World Cup final with New Zealand at Twickenham on October 30, 2015, is seen as a boost for the ailing Aussies.
Beale, who now plays for London Wasps, has an extraordinary record against the All Blacks in Australia with two wins, two draws and a single defeat in five Tests since 2011.
Playmaker Beale will be starting with other Wallaby king-pins Israel Folau and Bernard Foley for the first time, despite being Test mainstays for most of their careers.
There is also mounting pressure on Cheika, who like most recent Australia coaches, has a losing record against the All Blacks — just one win from six — among an overall 56 percent success rate.
Australia: Israel Folau; Henry Speight, Samu Kerevi, Kurtley Beale, Curtis Rona; Bernard Foley, Will Genia; Sean McMahon, Michael Hooper (capt), Ned Hanigan; Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold; Allan Alaalatoa, Stephen Moore, Scott Sio.
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Tom Robertson, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Lopeti Timani, Nick Phipps, Reece Hodge, Tevita Kuridrani.
New Zealand: Damian McKenzie; Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Liam Squire; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (ENG)