The furious race for Super XV finals spots takes a three-week hiatus, beginning with a string of internationals being staged around the world this weekend.
Australia is heavily favoured to subdue ever-unpredictable France at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night. The Wallabies, who won the last four Tests on their Northern Hemisphere tour in 2013 after a tough season on the international stage, have named an experienced line-up for the first of three Tests against the tourists.
Veteran hooker Stephen Moore has been elevated to the captaincy, and Adam Ashely-Cooper – who, like Moore, boasts 91 Test caps – and Michael Hooper have been installed as vice-captains. NSW halfback Nic White ousted Will Genia for the No.9 jumper in the biggest talking point of the Wallabies’ team announcement, with the Reds’ poor season resulting in just three Queensland players being selected in the 23-man squad. Waratahs lock Sam Carter is the only debutant, while the otherwise seasoned pack is complemented by an exciting backline that features NSW’s Bernard Foley at flyhalf, and plenty of strike in the shape of Israel Folau and Nick Cummins.
France has been battered by injuries, missing inspirational skipper Thierry Dusautoir and imposing loose forward Louis Picamoles. Wily veteran No.10 Frederic Michalak – who was left out of Toulon’s squad for the recent Top 14 final – is back to steer the national side around the paddock, but ‘Les Bleus’ face an uphill battle to record their first victory on Australian soil since 1990. France has not won in Brisbane since a 16-15 success at Ballymore in 1972.
New Zealand is a short-priced favourite to extend its 14-match winning run after going through 2013 undefeated, hosting England at Eden Park on Saturday night. The stratospheric expectations placed on the All Blacks dictate that anything less than a comprehensive victory over the touring English is unacceptable – but it’s difficult to envisage any other outcome.
But the All Blacks will be weary of the tourists, who are the only team to inflict defeat on New Zealand since the 2011 World Cup – carving out a 38-21 victory at Twickenham in late-2012. Samoa-born centre Manu Tuilagi starred in that win, and is one of just seven players in England’s under-strength squad with more than 20 Test appearances to his name. Controversial former Melbourne Rebels flyhalf Danny Cipriani has been named on the bench for an England side chasing its first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand since 2003.
Injury-hampered incumbent Aaron Cruden has been given first crack at the contentious No.10 jumper, with brilliant Hurricances five-eighth Beauden Barrett named on the bench. Dazzling Highlanders inside centre Malakai Fekitoa and young Auckland lock Patrick Tuipulotu are in line to make their Test debuts off the bench.
Six Nations champions Ireland travel to Argentina to take on the Pumas in the city of Resistencia. Ireland have made eight changes to the side that clinched the Six Nations title against France, including South Africa-born lock Robbie Diack and New Zealand-born prop Rodney Ah You, who have both been named to debut. Darren Cave has claimed retired legend Brian O’Driscoll’s No.13 jumper for the first match of the two-Test series.
Meanwhile, Matt Giteau has been named as captain of a World XV side to take on South Africa at Newlands Stadium on Saturday. Recent former Wallabies James O’Connor and Drew Mitchell also feature in the star-studded and vastly experienced squad, alongside ex-All Blacks Rene Ranger, Hosea Gear, Carl Hayman, Andrew Hore and Jimmy Cowan. Gear inspired the Barbarians to a 39-29 victory over an England XV last weekend with two tries.
Follow Commentary Box Sports on Social Media!