Rugby Championship
Chatter indicates All Blacks nervous for Bledisloe
Andy Withers
August 15, 2014
Greg Growden previews the Bledisloe Cup

Kurtley Beale has been front and centre of Bledisloe Cup headlines since Ewen McKenzie named him the Wallabies starting five-eighth against New Zealand at ANZ Stadium on Saturday. Beale's selection caused a sharp intake of breath among many in the cognoscenti, with his Super Rugby title-winning New South Wales Waratahs team-mate Bernard Foley, the Test incumbent, benched to give him the No.10 jumper. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, in that inimitable bantering mind-games way of his, said he was "dumbfounded by it a wee bit initially, the selection".

But Nathan Sharpe believes Hansen's comments, and "you've seen a few things in the press that don't normally come from the All Blacks" indicate the New Zealand camp - if not the entire nation - aren't quite as confident as perhaps they could, or should, be after winning their past 17 Tests.

"Usually they talk just about things in their own patch," Sharpe told ESPN exclusively. "And that for me says they're worried about the Wallabies."

Nathan Sharpe spoke to ESPN courtesy of HSBC, for whom he is a rugby ambassador © HSBC (Image Supplied)

Sharpe, who played 116 Tests for Australia, including 27 against New Zealand, said the All Blacks did have "things in their own patch" to consider in Sydney, not least the fact that Conrad Smith may miss the Test having dashed home on Friday to be with his wife to await the birth of the couple's first child. Smith is rightly considered to stand among the best players in the world, perhaps as the best centre in the world, yet his worth is noticed most notably in absence. The defence, in particular, seems less secure when he is not there to organise it, as we remember from Ben Smith's attempts in the No.13 on the end-of-year tour last season.

"Malakai Fekitoa, if he starts, with Conrad Smith's wife in labour, they'll target his decision-making at outside centre," Sharpe, now a respected television commentator for Fox Sports, told ESPN.

Sharpe also noted the All Blacks would do well to consider the defensive ability of their own fly-half, Aaron Cruden, rather than looking to throw barbs at Beale.

"The Wallabies will target Aaron Cruden in defence, somewhere," Sharpe said. "He's a willing tackler, but he's not an overly physical guy so there's always opportunities to get through his channel in defence.

"There's certainly some weaknesses there, but the All Blacks have been the best team in the world for a long period time: they are consistently very, very good right across the board; to beat them you've got to be right on your game in every facet of the contest."

Which brings us back to Beale.

Kurtley Beale is in career-best form © Getty Images

ESPN correspondent Greg Growden believes the Wallabies have a better chance against the All Blacks with Beale at 10, and Sharpe is of the mind that McKenzie selected the "x-factor" player to direct play because the Wallabies, in the absence for various reasons of Nick Cummins, Henry Speight and Joe Tomane, "don't have the attacking finishers the All Blacks do".

"Ewen brought in Kurtley Beale to add that attacking threat perhaps a little bit closer to the midfield, and that might create some space out wide rather than just trying to get the ball out to the wings," Sharpe said.

"And I tell you what, Rob Horne and Pat McCabe played very, very well in Super Rugby. They were rock solid. There's going to be opportunities for the All Blacks to attack with width, but I can tell you: you won't find two better defenders out on the edge.

Ewen McKenzie explains the 'Australian way'

"Ewen McKenzie has quite an open mind as to the way he approaches his games. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kurtley defending on the wing so he can be used in counter-attack, and Pat McCabe in centre field to crash it up off Matt Toomua. It's a good mix I think."

Up front, much has been made of the Wallabies' lack of experience in the front-row with Nathan Charles replacing Tatafu Polota-Nau with the limited experience of two Tests off the bench against France. But Sharpe prefers to focus on the things Charles adds to the squad, rather than the loss of Polota-Nau's all-round game.

"Nathan Charles is a very good set-piece hooker, which is important for the Wallabies because the All Blacks have a very good scrum and lineout," Sharpe said. "And he is one of the best throwers in Australia - if not the world. He's very, very good at putting the ball on the mark. Those areas are going to be a strength of his. So long as he makes those set-pieces sturdy, makes some pretty robust tackles around the field and work hard … sure he might not have the impact around the field of Tatafu in terms of his running game, but he adds other strengths that other players can't."

Sharpe doesn't believe "you can sit back and say the team's had an overriding success just yet" despite their impressive seven-match winning streak. "You've got to look at the opposition there: there's been some games there when you expect them to win; probably all of them fit in that category."

But the team is becomingly increasingly mature and ready to face their coming appointments with the All Blacks and the Springboks. The Wallabies now take their next step towards the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and Sharpe believes they will win at "a tight affair" ANZ Stadium.

"You never write [the All Blacks] off, and the last game they demolished England and have been in good form," he said. "New Zealand's had the trophy for a long period of time; the Wallabies need to win this first game to get the cup back. It will be hard to win in Auckland - I'm not saying it'll be impossible - but if they can win in Sydney they can get the opportunity to go to Brisbane and create history."

Nathan Sharpe spoke to ESPN courtesy of HSBC, for whom he is a rugby ambassador. HSBC, the world's leading international bank, is proud to partner with the Wallabies. HSBC shares the ARU's ambitions to grow and constantly strive for success. Follow HSBC Rugby on Twitter at @HSBC_Rugby

The Wallabies overpowered France, but "you expect them to win" those games © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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