Wallabies must lift to match All Blacks' pack power
Cornell Vander Heyden
August 14, 2014
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the first two matches of the 2014 Rugby Championship
The Wallabies have every reason to feel quietly confident ahead of facing the All Blacks for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship opener at Sydney's ANZ Stadium on Saturday. Both sides proved in their most recent series that they are building well for the 2015 Rugby World Cup with clean-sweep victories over France (Australia) and England (New Zealand).
The home side are aiming for an eighth straight Test victory and, more importantly, Ewen McKenzie has instilled a sense of calm around the squad. Not having to deal with any late-night, off-field drama has allowed him to focus fully on what will again be a massive challenge. Recent injuries have affected forward depth more than the backs, and that's where McKenzie's biggest threat may come from.
For the All Blacks, aiming for a record 18th straight Test victory, this is the match that may induce a few nerves. The record will be in the back of their minds and the lift in Australia's performances across the board in Super Rugby will have been well noted. Nevertheless, this looks to be a very strong All Blacks outfit, even with the loss of Tony Woodcock and Dan Carter to injury. If the strength of a side can be measured by the strength of its bench, this New Zealand squad is all class.
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One thing seems certain: given favourable conditions, this should be an entertaining affair with plenty of ball-in-hand, attacking rugby. The Wallabies backline is set-up that way, and the All Blacks will likely fight fire with fire. Standby for a potential classic like the first match in 2000, played at the same venue.
Ewen McKenzie has picked his squad based on form, with a dominance of New South Wales Waratahs and Brumbies players rewarded for excellent seasons. Among those, Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale will be key. The former to continue to do what he does so well, menacing the opposition at the breakdown while also providing a running threat, while the latter needs to be on the mark as conductor of the backline orchestra, as he was for the Waratahs in the final.
Michael Hooper has done an excellent job filling the role David Pocock played at the breakdown © Getty Images
As usual there are few players in the All Blacks side not at the top of their game, as evidenced by Israel Dagg being dropped for Ben Smith. New Zealand got the better of England this year with Kieran Read only playing 40 minutes because of injury and he looms as a big threat after another excellent display in Super Rugby.
Kieran Read played only a minor role in New Zealand's victories over England this year © Getty Images
Out of form
It is rare to find out-of-form players taking part in a Bledisloe Cup opener, and the 2014 edition is no different. The question mark for the Wallabies is centred more around experience rather than form, particularly at hooker, where Nathan Charles and James Hanson have been thrown in the deep end. How they cope with the pressure could be pivotal to the result.
Key area to watch
With both sides boasting an array of attacking threats in start-studded backlines, the quantity and quality of possession will be vital. If Australia can find parity or better when it comes to line-outs and scrums, their chances of victory will be massively improved. That won't be easy, however, and on paper at least the All Blacks look to have the edge.
When it comes down to finding the paint, Israel Folau and Julian Savea are two of the best in world rugby. Savea has touched down 23 times in 22 Tests, while Folau has scored 13 times in 18 appearances. The latter will want to improve his ratio closer to that of Savea as the Wallabies No.1 threat on Saturday night.
In a tight battle, the All Blacks to prove stronger at the breakdown and set-pieces to run out winners by 7.
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