2018 Rugby Championships

& Bledisloe Cup 1st Leg.

Australia vs New Zealand

Saturday 18th August 2018

Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 Local; 09:45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

Weather Prediction:

Few rugby Tests attract as much speculation and discussion as the first of the annual Bledisloe Cup matches between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. The media go to town about the looming confrontation between the “old enemies.” The coaches regularly embark on some “friendly fire” as they have a go at each other and their respective teams. The fans have their say. Even impartial observers get involved. The game generates plenty of interest across the world of rugby.

Somehow, the Australian coaching team also allows their players to have their say about the game too.

This year the entire flavour of the discussion has been markedly different to previous years, at least as far as the banter between the coaches has been concerned. Steve Hansen seems to have embarked on a charm offensive as he has stated that the Wallabies start as favourites, making much of the fact that they won the last encounter between the two teams. He has been complimentary about the improvements in the Aussie game, making mention of the new physicality and determination he sees in the Wallaby ranks.

Hansen has given Michael Cheika no ammunition or cause to fire shots at the All Blacks.

The Aussie media has attempted to brush off Hansen’s soft-soap approach, quoting past players such as Stirling Mortlock rubbishing Hansen’s contention that the Wallabies are the favourites as a “load of tripe.”

Interesting too, has been the willingness of the Australian players to comment about the game, their own team mates, and their opposition. Bernard Foley has been the most prominent of the lot, he has spoken of Beauden Barrett and how to beat him, and added his thoughts on how the All Blacks can be stopped, he has spoken about their defensive strategy, and he also told of the Wallaby preparations to ensure a good start to the Test. Israel Folau has told us that he will change nothing in his aerial approach to challenging for the ball and that he wants to beat the New Zealanders; Kurtley Beale has discussed who should be his centre partner, while David Pocock has also had his say.

Even the Wallaby skills coach, Mick Bryne has been out there talking up his team. He says “After years of playing catch up, Australia’s rugby stars are now just as skilful as the All Blacks.” (He might have some insight as he previously spent time with the All Blacks in the same coaching capacity.)

Not that the New Zealand media and fans have been reticent in presenting their views. They have had their say too.

During all this talk, the one tellingly obvious thing has been the silence of the All Blacks.

The players themselves have been silent about their preparations, expectations, and strategies.

And that is just a slightly ominous sign, if you know the All Blacks.

As much as the Wallabies will be wanting to win this game and make a statement about their intentions for 2018 and the looming 2019 Rugby World cup, they will know that the All Blacks will be ferociously focussed on revenge for last year’s loss and making a very serious statement of their own.

They will be saying: We are the World Champions and you are going to have to do something really special to beat us!

If we take a step back from all the talk and posturing, there are some indicators to what we might expect. New Zealand teams dominated Super Rugby again this year. As the season came to an end three of their teams were  in top form, with the Crusaders approaching a peak seldom seen during the regular Super season. And that is an ominous sign for any team about to play the All Blacks. That Crusaders outfit provides the majority of the current All Blacks, together with the contingent from the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Blues and the Chiefs.

The Australian Super Rugby campaign was a little better in 2018, but still fell well short of that of their Antipodean neighbours.

A somewhat below form All Blacks beat France in their June Test series. Now those players are starting to show some form! Players such as Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick, who missed the series against France, are back, bringing their not inconsiderable physicality and focus to the team.

The Wallabies lost to Ireland in the mid-year Test series. They were perhaps better than in 2017, but they still lost.

The Wallabies have been talking the talk, now they must walk the walk.

One interesting aside.

When Michael Cheika took over the Wallaby coaching job, he worked at introducing a new, harder edge to the Wallaby game. In the early years of his coaching regime this “harder edge” mostly translated into a niggling, physically aggressive, confrontational approach to the game. Much jersey tugging, off-the-ball barging, blocking of runners, shouting and posturing that distracted from the Wallaby focus somewhat. It was an approach that worked once against the All Blacks, in 2015, but then the world took note and simply ignored the waving arms and aggressive faces. Eddie Jones responded by teasing, as England smiled, and won the series.

The second two games against the All Blacks last year, culminating with the win in Brisbane showed a Wallaby team with a completely different approach. They abandoned the niggle and aggression and focussed on winning the collisions and playing a physical close-in game. They matched the All Blacks’ physicality and steel, and it paid dividends!

Can they do it again?

Match-Day 23

Australia:

An injury to Scott Sio has seen Waratahs loosehead prop Tom Robertson elevated into a surprise starting spot for Australia’s clash with New Zealand in Sydney on Saturday.

Robertson, who came off the bench in June, will make just his third Test start in the Rugby Championships and Bledisloe opener after Sio’s withdrawal over a shoulder complaint.

Allan Alaalatoa comes onto the bench for the Wallabies after missing the June Series with an injury of his own.

Robertson is the only real surprise in the starting team, with Reece Hodge taking the outside centre position after injuries to Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika had no qualms about bringing hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau into the starting spot in his first Test of 2018.

He will be backed up by Tolu Latu, with Brandon Paenga-Amosa out of the side completely.

Michael Hooper will play his first match since June, named at openside after almost two months out with a hamstring injury.

Rookie utility back Jack Maddocks pipped Tom Banks for the final bench spot, putting him in line for his Test debut.

New Zealand:

Jack Goodhue and Waisake Naholo will start for the All Blacks on Saturday.

It will be just a second cap for Goodhue, who started in the third Test against France in June.

Naholo lines up on the right wing, after Nehe Milner-Skudder withdrew from the squad with another injury.

Kieran Read captains a side that boasts plenty of experience.

Ben Smith is at full-back, with Rieko Ioane on the opposite wing to Waisake Naholo. Goodhue partners Ryan Crotty in midfield, while Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith form the halfback combination.

Liam Squire is at blindside with Sam Cane at openside and Kieran Read at number eight. Sam Whitelock is reunited with Brodie Retallick in the second row, while Owen Franks, Joe Moody and Cody Taylor make up the front row.

Thoughts

If the Wallabies want to win this game, the very first step they will need to take is to match the All Blacks up front. This is an explosive All Blacks’ pack that has the ample firepower, and the experience and nous to subdue and dominate any pack of forwards in the game of rugby.

The tight five, with the front row of Moody, Taylor, and Franks and a second row of Retallick and Whitelock is a formidable outfit with a depth of experience that adds to their physical properties. They are supported by a classy and equally physical loose trio of Read, Cane, and Squire.

The Aussie front row features a surprise choice as Tom Robertson starts in the loosehead slot after Scott Sio withdrew with an injury. He has to contend with Owen Franks who has been in top form of late. Alongside Robertson we have the return of Tatafu Polota-Nau who has been playing his rugby for Leicester Tigers and has recently returned to Australia to join the Wallaby squad. He is a powerful scrummager but there will be questions about his match fitness and endurance at Test level. Sekope Kepu rounds out the front row, a steady performer, but not a spectacular one.

The front three are backed by Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda, two locks that add some steel to the Wallaby pack.

The loose trio of David Pocock at 8, with Hooper on the openside and the bulk of Lukhan Tui on the blindside looks competent.

The Wallaby lineout should be competitive, if Polota-Nau finds his range with the ball. He has not been known for extreme accuracy at the put-in, but his time at Leicester might have helped this aspect of his game. Certainly Rodda and Coleman, as the primary jumpers, are as good as any. They will need to be at their best to match Read, Whitelock and Retallick, with Codie Taylor a very accurate thrower of the ball.

The two teams present radically different approaches to midfield ball carrying strategies.

The All Blacks will use a pod of forwards, comprising the two props and the locks as their mid-field ball carriers, with the flankers, hooker and eighthman ranging out wide, playing in the tramlines if you like. It is a classic 2/4/2 strategy that has worked for them in recent years and is used by the Crusaders, the Hurricanes, and the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

The midfield forward pod is used as an alternative to the ball going to the backs, never as the first option. The All Blacks will also frequently look to draw the defence towards the pod but then move the ball from the pod to runners going wide before making contact. Only about 50% of the ball that actually goes to the pod of forwards is taken into contact, and then usually after a well-timed off-load the moment before contact to shift the actual contact point.

The Wallabies under Michael Cheika have preferred a 3/3/2 strategy, setting up in the midfield with two pods of forwards consisting of three players in each, and allowing two players, usually Hooper and Pocock to roam as free agents. They are more likely to bash into contact and take the ball to ground for resetting and recycling. When they play the ball to the backs it is often to Beale at 12, using him as the primary playmaker off both set-piece and recycled ball.

Which approach works best?

The All Blacks game is clinical and well-rehearsed. They know their systems and they know exactly how to play them. They are not as concerned with winning the collision, as they try and take the ball away from the collision in the split-second before it occurs. The Wallabies tend to be more reliant on winning the collision, sealing the ball on the ground and then recycling to bash it up again, waiting for their opponents to run out of defenders.

The Wallabies will be looking to David Pocock and Michael Hooper to dominate the breakdowns, slowing or stealing All Black ball to prevent the All Blacks from playing with quick, clean ball, often their best attacking ball of all. The All Blacks will be looking to Liam Squire and Cody Taylor to counter the Pocock/Hooper threat. They will be targeting the Aussies when it comes to cleaning out at the rucks.

At the back the All Blacks look to have a more stable squad. Despite questions about Beauden Barrett’s form, he is a player for the big occasion with undoubted international class, and he will have heard the mutterings of those who seek to write him off in 2018. He is likely to bring some serious motivation into this game.

Barrett faces off against Bernard Foley, who is not quite in the same league as far as skill levels are concerned, and is certainly not the same game manager. Foley is more of a link than an initiator, and looks to feed good ball to Kurtley Beale, who is the real playmaker in the Aussie back division.

Beale faces Ryan Crotty, an equally influential playmaker in the All Black midfield.

At outside centre the Aussies are fielding a utility player, Reece Hodge, up against the powerful, straight-running, hard-tackling Jack Goodhue. One is a specialist outside centre, the other not. This might well be the Aussie weak link.

At the back the All Blacks have Ben Smith, probably the best fullback in world rugby with defensive and offensive skills in equal measure. He is known for playing to the ball and looking for work. He is especially adept at running superb support lines to take the “second touch” ball from the primary carrier. An uncanny ability to breach the gain line before offloading the ball makes him a handful for defenders to deal with. He is also a very good kick chaser.

He faces off against Israel Folau. Folau has been the Waratahs’ and Australia’s primary strike runner for some time. He is big, quick, powerful, and elusive with the ball in hand, and a wonderful counter-attacker when the ball is kicked onto him. He likes to run into the wider channels and is difficult to bring down. On the attack he is perhaps better than Ben Smith.

But he has some weaknesses. He does not have the best positional nous in the business and is frequently caught out of position by clever kicks and grubbers. He does not have the best kicking game, and he favours setting himself on the left side of the field as it allows him room to kick with his right foot, his left foot is powder puff. This opens the right field for tactical kicks that force him to turn and chase, and he does not like doing so. His defence has also been a bit weak at times as he goes in too high and slides off tackles.

Israel Folau’s aerial skills are impressive. He has a gigantic leap to catch the ball he is chasing, which is both intimidating for those waiting under the ball, and is usually perfectly timed to gain control of the ball. There is, however, a danger to this approach as he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, as he did against Ireland where he saw a yellow card and eventually served a one-match suspension when he jumped into the Irish.

Another weakness in Folau’s game is that he does not go looking for work. He waits for the ball to come to him, in direct contrast to Ben Smith who likes to go looking for the ball.

Out on the wings, the All Blacks have two of the finest finishers in the game, with Waisake Naholo and Reiko Ioane both hungry for tries. One is the muscular powerhouse finisher, the other the lightning quick speedster. They are both frequently used as a close-in first receiver off broken-play ball and even off set-pieces.

The Wallabies field a re-treaded full-back, Dane Haylett-Petty on one wing and the muscle of Marika Koroibete on the other. Haylett-Petty is more of a harrying nuisance type player that pounces on opportunities, while Koroibete looks to steamroller over opponents on his way to the line. In direct confrontations he is difficult to stop, but oblique angle tackling often finds him unable to maintain his balance. Both wings can be very dangerous if the opportunity presents itself.

The two scrumhalves are fairly evenly matched. Will Genia is Australia’s real general – he is the initial playmaker in many of the Aussie plays, and he is very good at putting his opponent under pressure. He faces Aaron Smith, considered to be the best scrumhalf in world rugby today. Both are capable of turning a match on its head in the blink of an eye.

A final thought: Bernard Foley has spoken of the Wallabies needing to present a solid defensive wall to stop the All Blacks, and that might be something of a problem. Their backline features three of the worst defenders in 2018 Super Rugby, with Kurtley Beale one of the very worst, with Bernard Foley himself just a short head behind him. Israel Folau is no great shakes at tackling either, but he does have the support of cover defenders and his two wings. As the first line of defence, the Foley/Beale channels might well be the area that the All Blacks will be targeting on Saturday.

The All Blacks had some defensive issues in 2017 when the Lions found that they could breach the line if they kept possession long enough. Much work has been done in this respect, evidenced by the miserly performances of the Crusaders and the Hurricanes in Super Rugby where their defensive array was almost impossible to breach. If this carries over into the All Black game, the Wallabies will have some really hard work ahead of them.

Prediction

The All Blacks almost always start a campaign with a bit of ring rust in evidence. Those first twenty or thirty minutes of a new series or season are often when they are at their most vulnerable. I have no doubt that the Wallabies will start the game hard and fast, with a focus on knocking the All Blacks back and working at building an early lead. If they can do this effectively they might just gain the confidence they will need to carry the lead through to the end of the game.

The All Blacks are probably the best second-half “surge” team in the whole world. They absorb the pressure, they grind out the early phases, they suck it in, and they wait for their opponents to wilt, and then they produce that remarkable almost unstoppable surge, based on superior fitness, skill, and their extreme confidence that they know wins games.

And it is that surge that suggests to me that the All Blacks are going to win this game.

The All Blacks, but it will be close, by around 7 points.

Teams:

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Jack Maddocks

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Tim Perry, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown