The All Blacks upped the psychological pressure on the Wallabies yesterday ahead of their Rugby Championship decider, warning the tandem attack of Michael Hooper and David Pocock could backfire.
The balance of the Australia side raised a few eyebrows in the New Zealand camp, but not the experiment of putting tearaways Hooper and Pocock on the park at the same time to gang up on All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw.
It simply opened up other areas to exploit, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
At stake in the clash at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium today is not just the Rugby Championship crown, which the All Blacks have won for the past three years, but also the chance to strike a mental blow ahead of the World Cup which starts in England next month.
New Zealand and Australia go into the final-round match as the only unbeaten teams following wins over South Africa and Argentina.
The Hooper-Pocock double act has been the main talking point in the buildup, with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika saying both players are in such commanding form he had no choice but to pair them up for the first time.
Pocock will be at No. 8 with Hooper wearing the No. 7 jersey and the focus will be on the breakdown where the All Blacks were exposed two weeks ago by South Africa, who also fielded two specialist open-side flankers.
The 34-year-old McCaw has ruled the collision area for much of past decade and declared himself unfazed by the Wallabies’ challenge.
“Having both out on the field makes sense from their point of view with the way they are playing, so from my point of view I kind of expected it, so it doesn’t really change a lot how we operate,” said McCaw, who will have Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read for support. “I think you realize the breakdown is an area that’s hotly contested, whether there’s one or two [of them]. Everyone has an impact there these days, but those two are certainly pretty accurate at that.”
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said the positive for the All Blacks in the Hooper-Pocock double act was that it exposed weakness in other areas. Of particular interest to the All Blacks was the inclusion of the mobile Dean Mumm at lock in the Wallabies lineup ahead of the more physical Will Skelton and the benching of center Matt Toomua.
“We’ve just got to make sure we take advantage of those weaknesses and make sure that we don’t allow them to have a field day at the breakdown,” Hansen said.
Away from the pressure-cooker breakdown, the focus will be on how Matt Giteau, who comes in for Toomua, and flyhalf Bernard Foley are able to protect the inside channel.
All Blacks pivot Dan Carter is under orders to test the defenses with Sonny Bill Williams outside him and heading back to his best with his telling offloads.
If the Wallabies defensive line holds it brings the ball-stealing skills of Hooper and Pocock into play, giving them the chance to counterattack using the elusive skills of Israel Folau and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Equally, any slip up by the Wallabies, who will not have the muscle of the uncompromising Skelton, will give the All Blacks room to unleash their back three of debutant Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
Milner-Skudder, with his elusive running skills, was one of the most talked about players in Super Rugby this year, while Savea has scored 30 tries in 33 Tests.
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