All Blacks Name Strong Team to Play Wallabies in Bledisloe Opener

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All Blacks Name Strong Team to Play Wallabies in Bledisloe Opener
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The All Blacks have named a strong and largely predictable team to take on the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship opener in Sydney this weekend.

It is a team that is close to full strength, with only Tony Woodcock and Dan Carter unavailable through injury.

The most notable omission is that of Israel Dagg. He sees his spot taken by the brilliant Ben Smith in what was an inevitable move. Smith has been the form fullback in New Zealand rugby for the past two seasons, while Dagg has been underwhelming and not captured the form he showed in 2010 and 2011. 

Dagg has no doubt been living on reputation over the past two years, but this can only last so long. Perhaps his time has come to prove that he is indeed still worthy of being an All Black.

Smith's form has been so good in recent years that he simply cannot be left out. Three years ago, Dagg was in a similar situation. To get back into the team, he will need to find form that makes him a must-have once again.

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Ben Smith has been preferred to Israel Dagg at fullback.

Picking Smith at fullback means Cory Jane fills the right-wing spot, while the damaging Julian Savea starts on the left wing. Together they make up the most dangerous back three in the world, one which has few flaws, being just as strong defensively as on attack.

The midfield has a familiar look to it, with Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith pairing once again. Inside them Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden form the No. 9 and No. 10 jerseys.

Cruden fills the spot vacated by Carter, although this is far from the issue it was three years ago. Carter is not of absolute importance to the All Blacks any more and his injury vulnerability in recent years has meant Cruden has had plenty of experience playing test rugby. In this time Cruden has proven himself more than capable of performing at this level and will set the back line alight with his ability to put his outside men into gaps.

Up front they have named a tough, hard-working forward pack which will look to take the game to the Australians. It is nothing new to suggest that the way to beating Australian teams is to beat them in the physical contest. Yet it still rings true.

They have a dangerous back line that are tough to shut down should they be given space and quick ball. To counter this, you have to be aggressive at the breakdown and tackle areas. In doing this, you slow their ball and stop them getting it on the front foot.

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The All Blacks have named a forward pack which is more than capable of doing this. Their loose-forward trio of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino are all capable of playing a physical game in close, while also possessing the skills and running game to be a threat ranging out wider.

In Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick they have two hard-working locks who rarely stop and are arguably the best locking duo in the game right now.

The only question mark remains over Wyatt Crockett at loose-head prop. There is no doubt he is a mobile prop who is strong in contact, but he has struggled in the scrum at this level in the past. This is such a key area and cannot be overlooked. Conceding scrum penalties can lose games and failure to set a strong platform limits how effective the rest of the team can be.

With him in the front row is the hard-nosed Owen Franks and ever-improving Dane Coles. Coles in particular has come a long way and showed himself to be a top player during the June tests against England. He has developed from being a good ball runner who is good in the loose, to a player who is also highly involved defensively and makes his tackles.

The bench springs a few surprises. There was no room for Liam Messam, with Steven Luatua being preferred as he also offers cover at lock. This has freed up a spot for Sam Cane to fill.

Ben Franks makes a return after struggling to make the 23 in recent times and is joined by young Crusaders tight-head Joe Moody. Keven Mealamu adds experience and will undoubtedly be called upon at some stage in the second half.

The three backs are all players who can come on and make an impact. TJ Perenara is a strong running scrum-half, while Beauden Barrett is fast and has a great eye for a gap. Malakai Fekitoa looks set to cover both the midfield and the wing, a hard-running player who was a revelation in this year's Super Rugby competition and impressed in his outings against England.

It will take a top effort from the Wallabies to beat this team. They are capable of doing it though and they have come a long way since this time last year. Despite this, you can be sure the All Blacks will enter as firm favourites.

 

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