After the war of words, the Wallabies and the All Blacks will settle their differences where it matters most – on the field. The first Bledisloe Cup Test in Wellington on Sunday afternoon will unfold against a backdrop of bloody boardroom battles between Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby, which prompted RA chair Hamish McLennan to declare trans-Tasman relations were at their “lowest ebb”.
The straining of relations between Australia and New Zealand dates back to July when the Kiwis invited just two or three of Australia’s five Super Rugby teams to participate in a trans-Tasman competition, which RA refused to entertain.
Since then Australia and New Zealand have found a way to bicker over almost every issue that has arisen, particularly scheduling for the Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship, leading to threats of boycotts.
Whether the animosity between the two blazer brigades manifests itself on the field remains to be seen, but it was interesting to note speculation the All Blacks intended to perform their controversial Kapa o Pango haka, which concludes with a throat-slitting gesture.
The All Blacks are no longer world champions, but they are still heavily favoured to beat the Wallabies, who have not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002 when some of the current Australia players were in nappies.
The Kiwis have a new coach, Ian Foster, but they will maintain some degree of continuity as he was former head coach Steve Hansen’s assistant. Conversely, the Wallabies will adopt a completely different approach under new coach Dave Rennie, who has replaced Michael Cheika.
The Wallabies are set to eschew Cheika’s signature ball-in-hand strategy and introduce tactical kicking to their gameplan, which will provide them with greater variety in their play. Rennie-coached teams are also known for their physical aggression in the forwards and repeat efforts, but will that be enough to upset the All Blacks?
It is a big ask for Rennie to guide the Wallabies to victory against the All Blacks in his first Test, especially at the beginning of a rebuilding period, but history says the two-time Super Rugby title-winning coach might have better than half a chance.
Of the seven previous Wallabies coaches in the professional era, four of them – Rod Macqueen, Eddie Jones, Robbie Deans and Cheika – beat the All Blacks at their first attempt, albeit three of those four wins were on Australian soil. Jones’s Wallabies beat the All Blacks in Dunedin in 2001, the last time Australia won a Test in New Zealand.
How will Rennie’s Wallabies emulate that achievement?
Australia have selected a fairly new-look team with four debutants – Harry Wilson at blindside flanker rather than No 8, outside-centre Hunter Paisami, winger Filipo Daugunu and back-up five-eighth Noah Lolesio – in the 23-man squad.
There are also six players – second-rower Matt Philip (three), No 8 Pete Samu (nine), fullback Tom Banks (six), reserve hooker Jordan Uelese (nine), reserve back-rower Rob Valentini (one) and back-up halfback Jake Gordon (one) – who have played fewer than 10 Tests. With the exception of Wilson and Lolesio, Rennie has largely resisted the temptation to rush too many young players into the Test arena.
On paper, the Wallabies appear weaker than the side that played in the World Cup in Japan last year, while the All Blacks seem stronger.
The only area where the Wallabies may gain parity, let alone dominance, is in the front row, although it is questionable whether Australia have a strong enough eight to out-scrummage the All Blacks.
But if the Wallabies’ front row is able to force scrum penalties, the Australians may accumulate enough points to stay in the game and then rely on an ultra-committed defence to keep the scoreline low, which is easier said than done against the attack-minded Kiwis.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected both teams’ preparation for the Bledisloe, which may actually help the Wallabies.
The All Blacks almost always have a distinct advantage in Bledisloe One because the Kiwis have superior match fitness to Australia owing to their greater involvement in the Super Rugby play-offs, but that may not be the case this year. The spread of Covid-19 forced Australian and New Zealand teams to play in their own domestic Super Rugby competitions.
The high-quality, high-intensity Super Rugby Aotearoa competition primed the All Blacks for Test rugby, but that 10-week tournament ended on 15 August. Since then, All Blacks maintained match fitness in the national provincial Mitre 10 Cup, but it was not the same standard.
Conversely, the Super Rugby AU competition concluded with a final between the Brumbies and the Queensland Reds on 19 September. Does that mean the Wallabies will be more battle-hardened than usual for Bledisloe One?
The Wallabies players, particularly the Brumbies, Reds and Melbourne Rebels, gained a lot of confidence from playing in “successful” teams in Super Rugby AU, but there is also a danger they are deluding themselves about the standard of the competition. The Wallabies may be in for a very rude awakening.
But if the Wallabies upset the All Blacks, it will certainly give Australian administrators ammunition the next time they do battle in the boardroom with their New Zealand counterparts.
Wallabies: Tom Banks, Filipo Daugunu, Hunter Paisami, Matt To’omua, Marika Koroibete, James O’Connor, Nic White, Pete Samu, Michael Hooper (c), Harry Wilson, Matt Philip, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Taniela Tupou, Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper. Res: Jordan Uelese, Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons, Rob Valetini, Jake Gordon, Noah Lolesio, Reece Hodge.
All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (c), Shannon Frizell, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Res: Dane Coles, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Tupou Vaa’i, Hoskins Sotutu, TJ Perenara, Anton Lienert-Brown, Caleb Clarke.