Of all the off-field travails afflicting Australian rugby union in recent times there’s one black cloud that never goes away – New Zealand.
The two-game Bledisloe Cup series, which begins in Perth on Saturday night, offers the Wallabies – on paper at least – a way to reset after the recent negative headlines around Israel Folau’s sacking and a form line of 13 losses in their past 18 Test matches.
Australia has not won a Bledisloe series since 2002, although this year coach Michael Cheika’s focus may well be on developing a team that can be competitive at September’s World Cup in Japan.
There’s no better way than establishing who can match it with the All Blacks.
All Blacks star Beauden Barrett raised eyebrows this week when he claimed Australia is more threatening without the sacked Israel Folau at fullback.
Despite Folau becoming Super Rugby’s highest try scorer this year and his place as equal third on the all-time Wallabies try-scoring list, Barrett felt his replacement Kurtley Beale offered the Australians more X-factor.
Without Folau, the Wallabies were less of an aerial threat, but Barrett said they had more options.
“We’re all aware of Israel Folau’s capabilities and the strength he has from a physical point of view,” Barrett said.
Kurtley’s a very exciting player and he’s so unpredictable I think they certainly don’t lose anything by having him there. If anything it’s probably more threatening.’’
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said this week his line-up was “pretty close” to the team he would play at the World Cup, making six changes to the side that recently drew with South Africa.
Among the changes Hansen has named explosive backrower Ardie Savea for his first start at No.6, alongside fellow open-side specialist Sam Cane.
They have kept the twin playmaker set up of Richie Mo’unga at five-eighth and Barrett at fullback.
The Wallabies pulled a selection shock, naming James O’Connor at outside centre in place of Tevita Kuridrani.
O’Connor hasn’t started a Test in six years and never one at No.13, but gives the Wallabies another ball-playing option.
The Australians have struggled to convert opportunities into points, with O’Connor tipped to switch with inside centre Samu Kerevi when the Wallabies have the ball.
Cheika rated O’Connor’s defence despite the unfamiliar role and said he had faith he could get the job done.
“I think James will bring something a little bit different that we haven’t seen, so definitely our opponents won’t have seen it either,” Cheika said.
“Some guys are getting opportunities now, but they’re opportunities given with the intention of going out there playing the best we can.
“We know how big an occasion it is and I know the players, how much they want to perform at this level and do something that hasn’t been done for quite a while.”
Brumbies tighthead prop Allan Alaalatoa has been brought back immediately after a foot injury in a bid to boost the front row, joined by Waratahs hooker Tolu Latu with Folau Fainga’a shifting to the reserve.
On the sidelines there’s been the usual niggle between the opponents, with Hansen indicating his respect for Cheika after labelling him as “Mickey Mouse” earlier this year was in jest.
Hansen made headlines in February when he mocked Cheika at a charity event in Wellington.
Ex-Wallabies star Mark Ella had said: “Mickey Mouse could coach the All Blacks to victory” and Hansen responded by saying: “They’ve got Mickey Mouse coaching Aussie.”
With the sides squaring off for the first time since, Cheika bristled when asked about it the comment.
“Oh mate, is that even a question?” Cheika said. “No drama for me.
“There is certain things in footy that you … respect is an important thing in footy.”
Hansen later attempted to explain his comment, saying there was no malice.
“I never said he was Mickey Mouse,” Hansen said.
“So you can make a big thing out of it if you want, or you can take it for what it was – something in jest.
“I have got plenty of respect for what Michael has done, end of story.”
Despite the barbs, Cheika said there was mutual respect between the two countries demonstrated by Australia’s willingness to commemorate the passing of All Blacks great Brian Lochore.
“He’s an icon of the game and at an occasion like this should be commemorated with a moment’s silence before a match.”
All Blacks players will wear specially created jerseys that will carry Lochore’s All Blacks number on their sleeves.
BLEDISLOE CUP – Game One, Perth, Saturday, 7.30pm
AUSTRALIA: Scott Sio, Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper (c), Isi Naisarani, Nic White, Christian Lealiifano, Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, James O’Connor, Reece Hodge, Kurtley Beale. Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Tom Banks.
NEW ZEALAND: Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Res: Codie Taylor, Atu Moli, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, George Bridge.