Australia vs. New Zealand: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Bledisloe Cup
New Zealand travel to Sydney to defend their Bledisloe title with both sides aiming to extend winning runs.
Australia have not lost since the opening match of their November tour at Twickenham, with seven wins on the bounce. The All Blacks are in world-record territory, hunting their 18th straight victory in this Rugby Championship curtain-raiser.
With both sides winning all three summer Tests and both countries producing finalists in this season’s Super 15 tournament, we are effectively watching the form players on the planet battle it out this weekend.
Here are the key matchups that will mould the 80 minutes.
1. Kurtley Beale vs. Aaron Cruden
Kurtley Beale has been picked at the expense of Bernard Foley in a curious back line.
Ewen McKenzie has opted not to retain the Waratahs' 10/12 axis who took the Sydneysiders to Super 15 glory, plonking Foley on the bench and handing the controls to Beale.
The mercurial playmaker will face Aaron Cruden, who once again assumes the All Blacks' No. 10 slot with Dan Carter nursing a broken leg.
Both bring creativity and flair, but Beale has the extra X-factor in his locker. If the game is tight it could come down to goal-kicking, though, in which Cruden holds sway.
2. Michael Hooper vs. Richie McCaw
Michael Hooper has the energy and exuberance of youth and has proven to be an inspiration for the Waratahs. If he can carry that momentum into his role as Wallabies skipper he will give his side a real boost.
McCaw has a wealth of experience and still operates at a high level. He lacks the pace of Hooper but will more than make up for that with his rugby brain.
If McCaw wins the ground game and forces turnovers in key areas of the field, the deadly All Blacks backs will punish Australia.
3. Israel Folau vs. Ben Smith
Israel Folau and Ben Smith were the two form full-backs of the Super Rugby season, and it will be a mouthwatering prospect to see them come head-to-head.
Folau is the best and most frequently used attacking weapon at the Wallabies’ disposal.
If Kurtley Beale can engineer enough space to put his Waratahs colleague into the right areas, Folau can take the All Blacks to the cleaners. They will attempt to nullify the former ARL man with a pinpoint kicking game.
Ben Smith is physically opposite to Folau. Short and slight, he doesn’t command the air like the Australian but is deadly on the counter-attack and has the kicking game to hem in his opponent.
Smith’s guile versus Folau’s dynamism could make for a great display of running rugby.
4. Adam Ashley-Cooper vs. Conrad Smith
Adam Ashley-Cooper has shuffled into the No. 13 Wallaby jumper, with Tevita Kuridrani making way.
This selection pits two vastly experienced men against each other at outside centre, with the jack-of-all-trades Aussie facing specialist No. 13 Conrad Smith.
It is a smart move from Ewen McKenzie to use the defensive intelligence of Ashley-Cooper against Smith’s creative brilliance in that wide channel.
The Wallabies will also look to bring Ashley-Cooper into the game on short balls to open space further out wide for their danger men.
Smith has nothing to prove as the world’s best No. 13, and if he can keep his opponent guessing with options left and right for distribution, he could find ways round the Waratahs man.
An intriguing battle.
5. Rob Simmons vs. Sam Whitelock
The second row matchup looks weighted in New Zealand’s favour with the dynamism of Brodie Retallick and muscle and experience of Sam Whitelock, but the underrated pair of Rob Simmons and Sam Carter will give them a run for their money.
The set piece will come under huge scrutiny with Australia’s inexperienced hooker Nathan Charles in the side. Simmons has the job of running the line-out and taking most of the ball if Charles can deliver the throw.
Whitelock will be targeting this area as a potential source of turnover ball.