Australia and New Zealand clash in the opening round of the newly expanded Rugby Championship today, 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 favorites for today’s match, and the title, after exacting revenge for last season’s loss with a comfortable 20-6 win over Australia in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in 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 No. 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.
Australia 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.
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 favored openside flanker position and the visitors expected to dominate up front, much will depend on what Berrick Barnes can do at flyhalf 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 today.
Will Genia will line up inside Barnes at scrumhalf, with Anthony Fainga’a replacing the injured Pat McCabe at inside center in one of just two changes to the side that scraped a 20-19 win over Wales in Sydney.
“Berrick played very well through June and we had good continuity prior to the mishap with Pat McCabe, so it was pretty straightforward,” Deans said.
Dave Dennis comes in at blindside flanker for the other personnel change, with Scott Higginbotham switching to No. 8 as cover for the injured Wycliff Palu.
“I’m expecting a baptism of fire, but that’s what you play for,” Dennis said. “I played them at junior level, but obviously playing a top team is a whole new experience.”
For New Zealand, Carter lines up having scored 270 points in 21 Tests against Australia and an injury to Conrad Smith has opened the door for Ma’a Nonu to partner Sonny Bill Williams in the centers.
“Sonny and Ma’a, they are some of the best midfielders in the game,” Australia back Adam Ashley-Cooper said.
“Obviously, the combination of those two is fairly new, but that certainly won’t deter from the fact they are a great midfield pair and great inside backs,” he added.
The twin Bledisloe Cup encounters is to be Williams’ last New Zealand appearances for the foreseeable future since the hulking back is headed to ply his trade in Japan.