PERTH, Australia, Aug 9 – The Wallabies are seeking confirmation of progress ahead of the World Cup as they attempt to loosen the power-packed All Blacks’ vice-like grip on the Bledisloe Cup on Saturday.
Such is the rivalry between the trans-Tasman neighbours that New Zealand coach Steve Hansen sees retaining the trophy as second only to defending their world title in his priorities for 2019.
With a partisan sell-out crowd expected at Perth Stadium, he has named a strong side widely seen as close to what is expected to line-up in their first game of the World Cup in Japan next month.
“I’ve always thought they’re (Australia) a very good rugby side. They’ve got a lot of talent,” said Hansen, who is not underestimating an old enemy they beat in the final of the last World Cup in 2015.
“They play us a lot and if you look at the last 10 years they’ve been the one team that have been able to beat us or draw with us, sometimes we’ve beaten them by quite a margin but they’re always tough games.”
This year’s annual Bledisloe battle is cut to two Tests from its usual three due to the World Cup, meaning Australia must win both in Perth and Auckland a week later to get their hands on the silverware for the first time since 2002.
But it is a massive task. The two sides will be playing their 165th Test against each other. Of those, New Zealand have won 114 and Australia just 43, with seven draws.
Last year the All Blacks won all three trans-Tasman clashes — comfortably.
Hansen has stuck with the experimental playmaking pair of Beauden Barrett at fullback and Richie Mo’unga at fly-half, with Aaron Smith directing operations at scrum-half.
Blockbusting loose forward Ardie Savea returns while Dane Coles starts as hooker, with Scott Barrett taking over from the injured Brodie Retallick in the middle row. Sam Cane is back at openside flanker while captain Keiran Read starts at No.8 in his 120th Test.
– Right direction –
Australian rugby chiefs are hoping the first Test between the two countries in Perth, their final game of a shortened Rugby Championship, will wipe painful memories of losses to the All Blacks in Sydney over recent years.
They head into the match on the back of a confidence-boosting 16-10 win against Argentina in Brisbane, following a disappointing 35-17 loss to South Africa.
With victory over the Pumas fresh in their memory, skipper Michael Hooper is hopeful they can break their Bledisloe jinx against a New Zealand team that only narrowly beat Argentina 20-16 before a 16-16 draw with South Africa.
“It would be confirmation of going in the right direction and gaining momentum,” he said on Friday.
“We’re very much about that at the moment, building as the year goes on. This is a very important game for us. We love playing these guys and testing ourselves against New Zealand.
“We believe that our system can work well against these guys and we’re going to put it out there to test it,” he added.
Coach Michael Cheika has rolled the dice by naming one-time bad boy James O’Connor to begin the match, completing his return from exile in a bid to help the team better convert dominant possession and opportunities into points.
The versatile back hasn’t started since 2013 after a series of off-field issues. He will line-up alongside Reece Hodge, Samu Kerevi, and Marika Koroibete, with Kurtley Beale at fullback.
Nic White replaces veteran Will Genia at scrum-half, partnering Christian Lealiifano in the halves, while tighthead prop Allan Alaalatoa returns to the Test arena for the first time this year.
Australia (15-1) – Kurtley Beale; Reece Hodge, James O’Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete; Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (capt), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto; Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda; Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio.
Replacements: Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Tom Banks.
New Zealand (15-1) – Beauden Barrett; Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea; Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, George Bridge.