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New Zealand vs. Australia: Key Battles to Watch

Tom SunderlandFeatured Columnist IVDecember 13, 2016

New Zealand vs. Australia: Key Battles to Watch

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    Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

    Following on from their untainted Rugby Championship triumph, New Zealand play host to Australia this weekend in the third Bledisloe Cup matchup of 2013.

    The All Blacks have already wrapped up the series for the 11th consecutive time with an aggregate scoreline of 74-45 across their two encounters earlier this year.

    Having said that, the occasion nonetheless promises to bring two of rugby's biggest giants together once more, the Dunedin hosts on top of their game while Ewen McKenzie's outfit continue to go through their period of transition.

    As is ever the case in a meeting of this magnitude, it's the little things that count, and several individual encounters promise to tip the scales one way or another.

1. Sam Cane vs. Michael Hooper

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    With Richie McCaw having to pull out of the matchday squad through injury, per BBC Sport, Sam Cane comes off the bench to replace the New Zealand captain in what could be a familiar storyline in coming years.

    Cane proved in the Rugby Championship that he has the potential to be as much of a nuisance at the breakdown as his New Zealand mentor, but he will have a significant competitor up against him this Saturday in the form of Michael Hooper.

    Hooper also also settled further into his international berth during the summer tournament, with both opensides showcasing that they could be capable of stepping up to their respective plates in coming years.

    Aside from the ruck, each flanker will be expected to lend a leading hand in the loose, carrying well around the edges and enforcing their presence, despite holding a combined age of just 42.

2. Charles Piutau vs. Peter Betham

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    Like Cane, Charles Piutau has been drafted into Steve Hansen's lineup as cover for the injured Cory Jane, per BBC Sport, to make just his seventh Test appearance for the All Blacks.

    However, the 21-year-old can be pleased that this encounter pits him against another face fairly new to the international scene, Australia's Peter Betham, who claims his first international cap this weekend.

    The Waratahs star has been knocking on the Wallabies' door for some time now and will get his chance to test his mettle under McKenzie this weekend looking to cement further consideration in the amber and gold.

    Considering neither wingers are first-choice assets for the coaches, there's a lot to be won and lost for the speedsters, who will rely massively on the fruits gained by their respective back lines.

3. Ma’a Nonu vs. Matt Toomua

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    Two figures in particular who might decide just how much supply those wingers see are Ma'a Nonu and Matt Toomua, who shifts out to his less common occupancy of centre this Saturday.

    Over the course of the Rugby Championship, Toomua's position of preference was deputising at fly-half for the sometimes-benched Quade Cooper, but the Brumbies starlet now gets the opportunity to showcase some of his playmaking prowess.

    Not until Round Six of Australia's Rugby Championship was Toomua used at inside centre, where he showed himself to be a useful asset against Argentina.

    In a way, the switch relieves the 23-year-old of some responsibilities placed upon him when playing in the No. 10 jersey and could be a far better move in terms of team dynamic.

    However, Nonu will be a greater challenge than Toomua could have ever faced against the Pumas, especially in terms of defence, where the youngster's tackling steel will be pushed to the brink.

    With Christian Lealiifano out injured this week, Toomua could be one of those who steps up to kicking duties, although there are other candidates.

4. Israel Dagg vs. Israel Folau

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    Paul Kane/Getty Images

    This Saturday will see the birth of Battle of the Israels as Israel Dagg and Israel Folau begin a fullback face-off that could well become a staple in Bledisloe Cup meetings for the foreseeable future.

    The pair have been beacons for their respective teams in 2013, Dagg further excelling in his All Blacks' ascendancy while Folau remains the Wallabies' top try-scorer in 2013.

    In their Rugby Championship fixtures, the latter was pre-occupied on the wing while Jesse Mogg made a slight hash of things in the No. 15 jersey, McKenzie since deciding that Folau could be his best option at the back.

    Offensively, the Waratah has looked bright, stepping into the line well when needed and providing a scoring threat but his positioning and kicking from defensive areas has been questionable at times.

    Dagg is a far more natural component in the role and is likely to emerge victorious in this maiden meeting, although that might be in no small part due to the backs around him possessing far more cohesion.

5. Aaron Cruden vs. Quade Cooper

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    Despite having a highly impressive Rugby Championship opener against Australia, Aaron Cruden was unable to tie down his place for the second Bledisloe Cup Test against the Wallabies earlier this year.

    The Chiefs' No. 10 showed himself to be a similar asset to Quade Cooper, strong in the running game and capable of setting his back line alight when the time called for it.

    However, it was Matt Toomua that got McKenzie's nod the last time Cruden met the amber and gold of Australia, making for a very intriguing battle when the All Blacks line up against Cooper this time.

    Fly-half is a position of some uncertainty for both sides, but Cruden has proven himself to be a very capable replacement in the absence of the injured Dan Carter.

    This time around, however, it may help the playmaker to put in more of a defensive shift along his attacking prowess, as New Zealand allowed an average of 24 points with Cruden starting at 10 in this summer's tournament.

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