Sunday 18 March 2018 / 03:22 AM

Battle for the Bledisloe begins

With the fun and games of the Super XV finished, it’s time for the top rugby-playing nations to now compete for bragging rights. There hasn’t been hype like this for years, with the general consensus that the mighty All Blacks aren’t looking so mighty even though they are one victory away from a winning streak record, the Wallabies are carrying very positive momentum from the Waratahs’ Super Rugby win, the Springboks are, as always, looking dangerous, and Argentina being the dark horse that can spoil the party.

The first match of The Rugby Championship is between the Wallabies and the All Blacks and it is being hyped as the game of the tournament. The game is to be played at ANZ Stadium, the ground at which the Waratahs recorded their recent final victory. Both teams are prepared to take it to each other, with each playing for something special. The All Blacks can finally claim an outright record and the Wallabies can take the first step to getting the elusive Bledisloe Cup back. This is going to be an epic clash and I wouldn’t be surprised if the All Blacks bring out Kapa O Pango, their Haka used to preempt special matches.

The All Blacks have named a balanced team with experience flooding the run-on team, led by none other than Richie McCaw. There are one or two surprises, with Israel Dagg and Liam Messam notable absentees from the 23-man squad. In their place are Ben Smith and Jerome Kaino, respectively. Steve Hansen has the luxury of phenomenal depth in his squad, which is brimming with talent – so much so that he has a headache each time he has to sit down and draw out the team. He believes that the men he has chosen can get the job done and I wouldn’t really doubt him. This All Blacks team has a lot riding on their shoulders, but there is a sense that they can be beaten and they will have to play as the champions that they are to not slip up. The majority of the squad played against England earlier this year and almost lost on occasion but somehow managed to pull the game from the fire.

The Wallabies are under no illusions that this is one of their best chances to topple New Zealand they have had since they last held the Bledisloe. The All Blacks have shown weaknesses in their armour and Ewen McKenzie’s men are ready to take full advantage of any gaps they can find. McKenzie has named a fairly young squad mixed with some experience. With some injuries listed, he had to call on the young up-and-comers to fill the gaps, notably Nathan Charles. Seven of the starting members come from the Waratahs, which can only lend to the momentum of Australian rugby. The surprise selection is Kurtley Beale in the pivotal flyhalf position, with many thinking that incumbent Bernard Foley should have been given the nod. Beale is a capable football player and has been in the cauldron before, but this will be another test of his ability as a playmaker and decision taker.

These two teams are evenly matched with each possessing the ability to upset each other. The All Blacks may have the technical advantage in the scrum area, which has regularly been the Wallabies Achilles’ heel, but this has improved over recent years. The All Blacks can build pressure from this platform, however. The ground game will be similar to what we saw in the Super Rugby final with Michael Hooper and McCaw canceling each other out via effective and robust play on the ground.

Wycliff Palu will be up against Kieran Read again in the No.8 role and I believe that Read will still outplay and outclass Palu, as it will come down to smarts and tactics over brawn and power. The loose trio battle will be epic so keep an eye out for these clashes as the breakdown will be an important area of the game for both teams.

The All Blacks look to have the supremacy in the air with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock building a reputation for themselves as target men and challengers in the air. Simmons may cause problems of his own but Carter will be outmuscled in the line-outs. I would guess that Charles will be aiming for the front men or going long to the back, trying to bypass the All Blacks beanpoles.

The backline is where the game makes me salivate. From numbers 9 to 15, each player has his expertise and is capable of breaking open a game. Kurtley Beale may be a surprise selection at 10, but he has been there before and is up against an old rival in Aaron Cruden. These two can be unpredictable with ball in hand and look for the quick step inside and a short ball to a forward runner. Both players are always looking to offload which can create phase play and pressure for the defensive team.

The centres are where the old heads battle. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been doing this for many years and with a combined total of 168 caps between the two of them, they know how to play rugby. Nonu has been working on his footballing/soccer skills so has added another attacking option to his arsenal. He is capable of grubbering a ball through for his pace men to chase and it has been revealed that he has been dragging out the kicking tee, so he has added to his brute strength and deft passing ability. It shouldn’t be an issue as Adam Ashley-Cooper has been around as long as these two so can combat anything the All Blacks throw at him. He is paired with Matt Toomua, a relatively new pairing but effective nonetheless. Both Wallabies are strong in defence and will be difficult to break down on the advantage line. This will be a ding-dong battle as the experienced midfield stars face off yet again.

There have been reports that Australia lack the pace out wide, but this could be a myth with Pat McCabe and Rob Horne both fast off the mark and both can use leg drive to get out of trouble. They will be tested to the limit of their abilities with Cory Jane and Julian Savea looking to break out wide and score some tries. I am sure that there will be some foot-race battles between these four, but all men will want support out wide. The All Blacks have done well in the past by having a loose forward lurking in the backs, offering seamless support, and the Wallabies will have to be ready to combat this. Tackling hard and fast will eliminate this threat and preventing the offload will nullify the All Blacks’ support plan. If they fail to stop the offload, they’ll have to resort to scramble defence, which is unwanted pressure.

Even though there will be individual battles, the men that we all have to watch will be the respective fullbacks. Israel Folau and Ben Smith have shown that they both can break a game open and create and finish team tries. This personal battle will be the highlight of the game. Both are equal with their abilities and they can both create something out of nothing. I would give the edge to Folau as he is capable of scoring tries and beating players one-on-one, but Smith finds the smallest gap to exploit and score tries.

The betting odds are in favour of the All Blacks, but not by much. The All Blacks are No.1 in the world and hold the most trophies, but they have had to sacrifice a few over the past few months with the Black Ferns being knocked out of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, the Sevens team losing in the Commonwealth games and the Chiefs falling short in their defence of the Super Rugby trophy. This is the best chance in a long time that the Wallabies have to dethrone the All Blacks and begin the task of retrieving the Bledisloe after 12 long years.

It’s a close game to call but maybe, just maybe, the Wallabies can do it and find something extra to stop the All Blacks’ dominance. If they do, then the Rugby Championship becomes an open tournament instead of another two-horse race between New Zealand and South Africa.

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Warren Adamson

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