Australian rugby is apparently on the cusp of bold new era of success. The Wallabies have endured a lean trot since their dismal 2011 World Cup campaign, but the NSW Waratahs’ breakthrough Super Rugby success and the emergence of a dazzling batch of young stars has elevated confidence levels to their highest in years.
The Wallabies’ opening Rugby Championship showdown with the All Blacks – who are chasing a world record 18th consecutive Test win – at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium is the most anticipated international match in recent memory. Despite a couple of puzzling selections by Australian coach Ewen McKenzie, the Wallabies are fizzing with confidence as they plot a boilover against their mighty trans-Tasman foes. Here’s where Saturday night’s Bledisloe blockbuster will be won and lost:
The Beale gamble
Kurtley Beale is a potential match-winner, but his selection at flyhalf ahead of incumbent, and Waratahs teammate, Bernard Foley, has confounded almost everyone – even leading All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to surmise his counterpart Ewen McKenzie was cajoled into it by the ARU due to NRL clubs circling Beale. He is a dynamic, elusive ball-runner and playmaker, but he can also be an erratic confidence player and is well below Foley’s standard as a goalkicker.
Foley has been picked on the bench, but his eventual introduction could be an attempt to pull the game out of the fire after the Beale experiment fails, rather than bringing in a level-headed tactician to close out a win Beale has set up. Opposing pivot Aaron Cruden is a similarly instinctive attacking player, but one who is far more experienced and a proven performer in the position, and much better off the tee. Beale could come up trumps at No.10, but the smart money is on McKenzie’s risky venture backfiring.
The weight of Super Rugby form
The Waratahs’ watershed Super XV triumph – toppling an All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders outfit in the final – has the Australian rugby fraternity brimming with optimism. Meanwhile, 13 of the Wallabies’ 15 starters featured in the Waratahs-Brumbies semi-final derby. Australia has fallen into the trap previously of picking players on reputation, but this time has gone with a squad bursting with in-form players.
The seven NSW stars will revel in running out onto Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, the scene of their euphoric final victory, once again – although the All Blacks are unbeaten at the venue since 2008. Promisingly, when Queensland broke through for its maiden Super Rugby title in 2011, the Reds-dominated Wallabies clinched their first Tri-Nations crown in a decade.
The All Blacks’ comparative man-to-man experience advantage is glaring, but it is the rusted-on combinations in key areas that give New Zealand a massive head-start. Veteran duo Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have played more Tests together than any centre pairing in Test rugby history; seasoned Wallaby Adam Ashley-Cooper will team up with Matt Toomua for the first time. Ditto Beale and Brumbies halfback Nic White, who square off against Cruden and Aaron Smith, the All Blacks’ scrum-base combination in 15 Tests since 2012. The Wallabies also have a hooker in his run-on debut throwing lineout ball to a lock in his second Test, while All Blacks hooker Dane Coles has been picking out jumpers Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock for virtually his entire 18-Test career.
Scoring strike power out wide
The selection of versatile duo Pat McCabe and Rob Horne on the Wallaby wings has also raised eyebrows. Neither has started a Test on the flank, and they lack the ominous scoring power of opposing wingers Julian Savea, who boasts an incredible 23 tries in 22 Tests, and veteran Cory Jane. Too much of the Wallabies’ attacking thrust is likely to fall on the shoulders of superstar fullback Israel Folau, while All Blacks No.15 Ben Smith – who surprisingly, but deservedly, ousted Israel Dagg for the role – is equally dangerous and elusive if not as robust, and has superior ball-playing instincts.
Competing at the set piece and the breakdown
There is no disguising the reality that, despite significant improvement at the set piece, the Wallabies are likely to struggle against the All Blacks in the lineouts and at scrum time. Retallick and Whitelock rank among the world’s best lineout combinations and could dominate Rob Simmons and young Sam Carter. Australia’s scrum has also been a perennial bugbear – the Wallabies’ pack desperately needs to muscle up in this department. Although the loose forward trio of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino is virtually without peer, the Wallabies can match them on the ground and in the loose courtesy of tenacious skipper Michael Hooper and imposing No.8 Wycliff Palu; their enthusiasm and power must counteract the guile and craft of their Kiwi counterparts.