New Zealand vs. Australia: Players with a Point to Prove
The Rugby Championship silverware is safely ensconced in the All Blacks’ trophy cabinet and the Bledisloe Cup is theirs for another year.
But black and gold will do battle one last time Saturday in the third Bledisloe rubber of the season, with nothing but pride at stake for the Wallabies and the chance for New Zealand to extend their winning run to 10 consecutive matches.
On an individual level, there are plenty of players on both sides who have the chance to further their own claims for starts when their respective countries head north for the autumn internationals.
The former rugby league and Aussie rules star knows his way to the try line as his hat trick against Argentina demonstrated, but it’s in defence the big man needs to prove he can hack it at this level.
He was easily outwitted by Marcelo Bosch in Rosario during the final round of The Rugby Championship—the new Saracens' signing barely had to wiggle his hips to get round a statuesque Folau to score—and without marked improvement, he will be undressed by the likes of Cory Jane and Julian Savea.
No one doubts Folau as an attacking threat, as we saw in his Test debut against the Lions and during the Championship, but he has work to do when the opposition has the ball.
It’s been 11 months since Cory Jane could call himself the first choice wing for New Zealand.
He has been plonked straight back into the side for the clash in Dunedin, which is a mark of the faith Steve Hansen has in the Wellington man.
But, as Jane admitted himself this week, the style of the side has evolved since he was last on the teamsheet, with width being the buzzword for, well, the wide men, rather than a brief to come infield and hunt for work.
Jane has the quality to make it seem as though he’s never been away; it’s just a question of how he’ll cope with a swift, steep return to the Test arena from provincial rugby.
It’s impossible not to pen a piece like this without including the mercurial Cooper on the list. The Wallaby born in Auckland has something to prove every time he plays the men in black.
Up here in the Northern Hemisphere, Cooper is regarded already as the kind of game-breaking No. 10 we rarely see in these parts.
He is a player of genuine talent shamefully overlooked by former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans when they barely had a fly-half worthy of the name during the Lions series.
But the Queensland Red is clearly irked by the treatment he gets from the New Zealand public thanks to his roots, and there are few keener mammals than kiwi rugby fans at sensing that chink of vulnerability and mercilessly preying on it. We saw it affect Cooper markedly during the 2011 World Cup.
Cooper is good enough to let his hands and feet do the talking on Saturday. God knows the Australians could do with him at his very best.
Now we get to see this man in the All Blacks’ No. 13 jersey.
The slot so assuredly occupied by another Smith, Conrad (no relation), for so long is predicted to pass to the younger man when his colleague eventually abdicates, and this is his chance to prove the pundits right.
Smith proved in the Championship he was a deadly finisher from the right wing, but you get the sense that his full repertoire can’t be displayed in a position where touches and chances are limited.
Outside centre comes with a far lengthier job description, and it will be fascinating to see if Ben Smith fits it as well as the elder.
Already, Australia coach Ewen McKenzie has pinpointed the untried duo of Ben Smith and Ma'a Nonu as a possible weakness this weekend, which may be clutching at straws.