Australia v New Zealand, Tri-Nations, Melbourne, July 31
Stage set for opening Bledisloe battle
July 29, 2010
This snapshot of the All Blacks' tactics has hogged the headlines in the lead up to the Melbourne clash © Getty Images
The battle for the Tri-Nations crown will intensify on Saturday with the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of the year between Australia and New Zealand in Melbourne.
The All Blacks enter the game on top of the table having set the standard with two bonus point victories over defending champions South Africa earlier this month but the Wallabies announced themselves as serious title contenders last weekend by heaping further woe on the beleaguered Springboks. As a result two unbeaten records will be on the line at the Etihad Stadium with the result of the 137th Test meeting between the sides set to go a long way to deciding the destiny of this year's Tri-Nations battle.
The latest battle for southern hemisphere supremacy has drawn plaudits aplenty thanks largely to the superb rugby served up by these two cross-Tasman rivals but this week's headlines have only flirted with form and instead centred on possible espionage and a second-rate playing surface.
The decision by photo agency Getty Images to publish a close-up of the All Blacks' tactics, held at the time by coach Graham Henry, sparked a furious media debate and drew allegations of "mistrust" with the end result a ban for the photographer in question - a Kiwi - and threats of a further ban on the company as a whole. Whilst the media attempted to decipher the seemingly cryptic diagrams, Wallabies counterpart Robbie Deans was a little more concerned by the playing surface that awaits the high-profile clash.
The first meeting of the sides in the city is in danger of being over-shadowed by what has been termed a troublesome pitch that has been labelled unstable by Australian Football League clubs and the AFL Players Association. At time of writing, the game is still scheduled for the 53,000-capacity stadium pending an inspection by referee Craig Joubert on the eve of the game.
If the two sides make it to the anthems, a fascinating battle awaits between two in-form sides that have produced a feast of running rugby in recent weeks. New Zealand swept South Africa aside with a crowd-pleasing blend of power and pace where a commitment to keeping the ball in hand brought rich rewards. The All Blacks' blueprint for success was not wasted on the Wallabies who adopted a similar approach in Brisbane last weekend and although they may have lacked the precision of New Zealand, it was clear that it was an approach that suited their talent-heavy back division.
But Australia will face a stiffer test of their credentials without a key part of their formidable arsenal with fly-half Quade Cooper sidelined with a two-week ban for a tip-tackle on Springboks No.10 Morne Steyn. The loss of arguably the form playmaker of 2010 is a huge blow for the Wallabies' title aspirations and will surely hinder their hopes of ending a seven-game losing run at the hands of the All Blacks dating back to 2008 and Deans' first meeting with the country of his birth.
The creative mantle is passed to Matt Giteau, no stranger to the No.10 shirt, who was back to his lively and elusive best against South Africa last time out. His return to form with the boot will also be warmly welcomed by Deans while Giteau's place in midfield is taken by Berrick Barnes in a move that sees a return to the combination that guided the Wallabies for of the last 33 Tests.
In the only other change to the Wallabies starting XV, veteran hooker Stephen Moore replaces Saia Faingaa having made his return from injury off the bench last weekend. The night will also be a special one for lock Nathan Sharpe as he ties the Australian record held by former skipper John Eales for the most caps earned by a Wallabies second rower. Sharpe, who made his debut against France in Melbourne eight years ago, will be lining up in his 84th Test.
New Zealand winger Joe Rokocoko will go one better by claiming the record as the most-capped All Blacks wingers when he lines up on Saturday in what will be his 64th Test appearance, eclipsing the mark of legends John Kirwan and Jonah Lomu. Rokocoko will not be the only one entering the record books with prop Tony Woodcock set to join Greg Somerville as the most-capped All Blacks prop when he makes his 66th appearance in his country's world-famous colours.
Rokocoko's promotion from the bench in the place of rising star Rene Ranger is one of two changes made by Henry since their latest win against the Boks a fortnight ago with Jimmy Cowan also returning to the starting line-up with Piri Weepu's preparations limited by the arrival of his first child. The in-form Weepu will start on the bench while Ranger will play no part.
With a close contest on the cards, history - the Wallabies have won the two most recent meetings between the two sides in Melbourne - and experience - the All Blacks boast 700 Test caps in their starting XV - could hold the key to the outcome. But in reality, the result of the much-hyped showdown between All Blacks talisman Riche McCaw and rising Wallabies star David Pocock at the breakdown and the latest battle of wits between Giteau and New Zealand No.10 Dan Carter will likely provide a clearer indication of the balance of power.
Such is the success these two sides have reaped from an expansive approach in recent weeks; neutrals will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of another feast for the eye and hoping that the pitch is not the one hogging the headlines in the aftermath.
Australia: Adam Ashley Cooper, James O'Connor, Rob Horne, Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau, Will Genia, Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Salesi Maafu, Dean Mumm, Nathan Sharpe, Rocky Elsom (capt), David Pocock, Richard Brown.
Replacements: Saia Faingaa, James Slipper, Rob Simmons, Matt Hodgson, Luke Burgess, Anthony Faingaa, Kurtley Beale
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Tom Donnelly, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read.
Replacements: Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (SA), Cobus Wessels (SA)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.