The Wallabies will need to deny the All Blacks’ big-name backline quick ball if they are to have any hope of upsetting the world champs in Sydney, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Australia have not beaten their trans-Tasman rivals in four years, while the All Blacks have lost just two out of 44 Tests since their World Cup triumph in 2011.
It’s the reason why Wallabies coach Michael Cheika acknowledged this week that the perpetual battle they faced was related to being regarded as underdogs each time they took on the All Blacks.
Cheika knows not many people can see his side emerging victorious on Saturday to clinch the 2015 Rugby Championship title, a tournament they haven’t managed to win since its expansion to include Argentina. To be fair, though, the All Blacks have held the monopoly on that title from 2012.
It’s likely they’ll make it four from four this weekend, with the two Australasian sides currently deadlocked on nine log points at the top of the table after securing victories over Argentina and the Springboks.
Only two All Blacks players have retained their same starting position from the recent win over the Springboks, with Aaron Smith and Conrad Smith slotting in again at scrumhalf and outside centre respectively.
In comes Dan Carter, Julian Savea and Sonny Bill Williams, while Ben Smith returns to his best position at fullback. That’s some firepower right there.
On the right wing, the dangerous Nehe Milner-Skudder will make his All Blacks debut, but there are 326 Test caps in the rest of the backline.
There is no team better than the All Blacks at making use of their backline dangermen, with their skills, off-loading ability, fitness and speed inevitably wearing down opposition defences at some point.
It’s also the All Blacks’ ability to employ an effective game of width that allows a devastating ball-carrier such as Savea to receive opportunities to bust his way down the touchline.
Interestingly, though, Cheika has finally decided to roll the dice and field fetchers Michael Hooper and David Pocock in tandem, with the ball-stealing duo set to start together for the first time in their Test careers.
The introduction of Pocock during the second half against the Springboks played a significant role in the Wallabies' comeback victory in Brisbane, and on Saturday he will once again be looking to wreak havoc at the breakdown along with Hooper.
While the Wallabies could have the personnel to deny the All Blacks quick ball at ruck time, they cannot then afford to be bullied in the scrums. It’s been a perennial problem area for the Aussies, and so it will be interesting to see what sort of impact powerful loosehead prop Scott Sio will have in his run-on debut.
The All Blacks quite rightly remain firm favourites to clinch their fourth successive Rugby Championship title, but the wily Wallabies could run them close if they can succeed in silencing their opponents’ star-studded backline.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: All Blacks 104, Wallabies 41, Draw 7
In Australia: All Blacks 48, Wallabies 24, Draw 6
– The Wallabies are winless (lost four, drawn one) in their last five Bledisloe Cup encounters at Sydney's Olympic Stadium and have won just one of their last nine at the stadium overall (lost seven, drawn one).
– The last time two teams were level on wins at the top of the table heading into the final round of this tournament came in 2011, when there were still only three teams. Australia defeated New Zealand in the decider at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
– Despite winning the Tri-Nations in 2011, the Wallabies have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002, with the All Blacks winning or retaining the trophy 12 times since then.
– The Wallabies are aiming for three straight victories for the first time since dispatching France 3-0 in a Test series in June 2014.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
Wallabies – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio.
Subs: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Photo: Simon Watts/Getty Images