Sydney, AUS — The Rugby Championship kicks off for its 2017 iteration this weekend, raising the curtain on the southern hemisphere’s premier international competition. The highlight of opening weekend features New Zealand traveling to Sydney to take on Australia in the first match of the Bledisloe Cup.
The Kiwis enjoyed a waltz through the 2016 Rugby Championship, opening their tournament account with back-to-back bonus point wins over trans-Tasman rivals, Australia, before belittling Argentina and South Africa over the final four matches. New Zealand were still in the afterglow of their 2015 Rugby World Cup victory but still were no match for their southern hemisphere counterparts.
Thankfully for Australia, New Zealand’s armor might not be as sturdy as it was during last year’s Championship.
The subpar performances during the final two tests against the British and Irish Lions have shown a chink in New Zealand’s armor, a vulnerability that, while minute, could make for a big tournament surprise.
Australia vs. New Zealand
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
6 AM EST Kickoff
New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003; nearly 14 years of domination over their arch-rival.
They certainly do not intend to put that record to rest come Saturday.
After what can only be thought of as a disappointing series against the Lions, Kiwis head coach, Steve Hansen, has decided on a largely familiar outfit to line up against the Wallabies.
Familiar but not without a few changes.
In the forwards, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, and Owen Franks resume their tenure in the front row while Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock reform their partnership in the second row. Sam Kane will once again don the #7 jersey with New Zealand’s skipper, Kieran Read, set to play just behind him at #8.
In a more shocking twist, Hansen has decided to move forward with his ideas for the future, naming 26-year-old Highlanders man, Liam Squire, at #6, dumping two-time world cup winner Jerome Kaino. Kaino’s performances against the Lions we’re not a full display of his playing capacity, but nonetheless pushed him out of the full match day squad.
In the backs, New Zealand look extremely potent with a line-up similar to the one that featured in the second test against the Lions. Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett resume their partnership at half back and first receiver, respectively; a combination that is still widely touted as the best 9-10 pairing in the world. Rieko Ioane will be joined in the center by Sonny Bill Williams after SBW was shown leniency on his four-game match ban stemming from his red card during the second test of the Lions series. Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith take their places in the back three along side the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie who deservedly gets a spot in the starting XV after a superb Super Rugby campaign.
New Zealand’s game plan is well documented and known. They will throw attacking intensity like their lives depend on it at the Wallabies. While not as strong on defense, the Kiwi’s kicking capacity gives them a positive defensive and offensive option that can be utilized from any section of the pitch. With a new injection of life from McKenzie and Squire, I believe New Zealand will be more of an attacking threat than they ever were against the Lions.
In the Australian camp, head coach, Michael Cheika, has a lot to prove come Saturday’s match. Although he lead the Wallabies to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, his team has sagged as of late, losing to Scotland during the summer internationals in quite a disappointing performance. He’s also under increasing pressure to help the Australian Rugby Union bring prominence back to rugby union in Oz, especially with the Super Rugby debacle that is the Western Force’s removal from the competition.
However, I can confirm that this Wallabies team is completely better than the one that played against Scotland.
The Wallabies plan to “fight fire with fire” when they take on the All Blacks on Saturday. Cheika has been ridiculed for his frequent personnel combination changes over his tenure, but the changes he has made to this starting XV this time ’round should be something to get excited about.
Scott Sio, former captain Stephen Moore, and Allan Ala’alatoa make up the front row from #1-3, respectively. Moore’s time as a Wallaby has been nothing short of brilliant but is in its twilight phase, thus ushering the team to handover the captaincy reigns to flanker Michael Hooper. In the second row Brumbies star, Rory Arnold, and Western Force man, Adam Coleman make a solid pairing that will have their hands full with New Zealand’s Whitelock and Retallick. Ned Hanigan, new long-term captain Michael Hooper, and Sean McMahon round out the front eight at #6-8, respectively.
“At the end of the day we're all the same players, we're all wanting the one thing," said Beale. https://t.co/wPr8AQ7ODk
— Wallabies (@wallabies) August 16, 2017
In the backs, Will Genia and Bernard Foley reform there now iconic partnership, a duo that has plenty of experience against their opposite numbers Smith and Barrett. Cheika’s best lineup decision comes with the center pairing of Kurtley Beale and Samu Kerevi, ditching Tevita Kuridrani for a much more edgy partnership. Kuridrani has been lackluster to say the least, so the inclusion of Kerevi could be vital against SBW. Lastly, Curtis Rona makes his debut on the Aussie wing across from Henry Speight, with the veteran fullback Israel Folau rounding out the starting XV.
Australia saw the Lions beat the All Blacks thanks to lightning quick defensive structure.
However, Michael Cheika has doubled down on his own plan to be New Zealand. His vision of a highly efficient attacking structure has been made more possible by the inclusion of Beale and Kerevi in the center, and he will need his whole team to buy into the “fire on fire” mentality if they are going to score a win on hometurf.
Saturday’s match is more than just a game, it might just be Australian Rugby’s livelihood.
PS: Somehow Wayne Barnes replaced Jerome Garcés as the referee for Saturday’s match. I wonder who could have influenced that decision…