As we move away from the controversy ridden Lions tour to South Africa, it’s hopefully time to get back to the good old fashioned basics of International Test Rugby. The first game of the annual Bledisloe Cup three match series between Australia and New Zealand is one that their supporters and neutrals alike eagerly look forward to. It sets the tone for the upcoming Rugby Championship as well as renewing one of International Rugby’s oldest and most fiercely contested rivalries.
Like everything this year, the global pandemic has managed to get its sticky fingers into proceedings, but fortunately some fast thinking was the order of the day and barring a few adjustments the Tournament looks set to proceed for the most part as planned, with the added benefit of crowds in attendance. New Zealand head into this match as favorites on paper, but after a thrilling three Test series with France in which Australia emerged triumphant, albeit only just, the Wallabies are perhaps more match hardened against tougher opposition. New Zealand’s summer series saw them annihilate Tonga, and ultimately put Fiji away twice, admittedly after a stern challenge from the Flying Fijians.
So as International Test Rugby gets back to business as usual, here’s what got us talking about a potentially fascinating Bledisloe Cup opener.
Fortress Eden Park – the All Blacks sacred ground!
The signs may say “Welcome to Eden Park”, but they probably should also add the qualifier “but it’s all going to end in tears”. In almost a hundred Test matches at the ground since 1921 the All Blacks have only lost ten. To say that the ground would appear to be cursed for opposition sides, may not be that far from the truth. Imagine then the sense of achievement for sides who have managed to topple the mighty All Black juggernaut. Australia haven’t done it since 1986, so it would seem that the odds are stacked against them. However, it can be done even if the last side to do it was France in 1994 – let’s just ignore the rather inconvenient fact that this last parting of the Red Sea happened a mere 27 years ago. Australia though may be feeling more confident than perhaps they should, coming off the back of an epic series win against France – the most recent team to successfully assault and breach the walls of Fortress Eden. It will be no easy task, and New Zealand know they simply have to notch up the gears slightly to build on their complete dominance of Australian teams in the recently concluded Super Rugby Trans Tasman competition.
Things go better with a dash of Retallick and Whitelock
New Zealand’s second row partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock is one of the best in the business – end of argument. Fresh from a stint in Japan with the Kobe Steelers, Retallick brings an edge to the All Blacks that they are never quite the same without. His partner Sam Whitelock is a Test veteran and between the two of them it’s hard to see Australian newcomers Darcy Swain and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto gain any kind of traction in the set pieces or the loose. Retallick at speed and with ball in hand is a rather frightening prospect, and for some reason we always seemed to be reminded of what Bond villain Jaws would have looked like if he’d played rugby. Whitelock meanwhile is just one of those exceptionally solid players, and his leadership on the field as he takes the Captaincy provides his charges with a sense of assurance and confidence in the task at hand. Expect to see these two dominate proceedings come lineout time, as well as make life hell for Australian defenses (which aren’t their strong point to begin with) in the loose.
Time for Valetini to bring his barn door Super Rugby physicality to the Test arena
Australia seem to have a fairly porous defence, especially in the midfield so all the more reason to have someone like Valetini stopping New Zealand’s army of gain line breakers dead in their tracks. We felt given his stellar performances in Super Rugby, Valetini had a relatively quiet series against France by comparison. We’re fairly confident that the back rower is going to be one of Australia’s next big things, provided his work rate stays consistent, which in the French matches it was not. New Zealand and Blues player Dalton Papalii will be a handful to contain along with Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane, so the above kind of show stopping tackles which seem to be Valetini’s trademark will be the order of the day.
Aaron Smith makes it a century
On the occassion of his 100th Test Cap and in front of the All Black faithful at Eden Park, expect to see the All Black scrum half at his very best. Arguably the best nine for quite some time now in Test Rugby, albeit with France’s Antoine Dupont increasingly snapping at his heels, Smith is a vital, tried and trusted commodity for the All Blacks. Able to adapt his game at the drop of a hat Smith is always a pleasure to watch. His ability to set New Zealand’s tempo off the set pieces is legendary and Australian rookie Tate McDermot will be hard pressed to match let alone better the All Black maestro.
Out on the wings will be one of the most intriguing and exciting matchups of this Bledisloe Cup series. New Zealand and Blues superstar Rieko Ioane meets up with Reds sensation Jordan Petaia. For us Petaia was one of the few things to get excited about in Australia’s recent dismal Super Rugby efforts. Ioane has in the last year struggled to replicate his stellar Super Rugby form at Test level, especially since the last World Cup. We all know it’s there but somehow his execution at Test Level seems a little off the pace. Petaia on the other hand seems to go from strength to strength whatever level he is playing at. Ioane’s tackle success rate can be hit and miss at times but the Australian is a ferocious and physical tackler, and can often be seen to be punching way above his weight. We can’t help feeling that in a tussle of two world class wingers, it’s the Australian who could well have the edge on Saturday, despite having considerably less Test experience than his Kiwi counterpart. Petaia just plays with a ruthlessness and confidence that Ioane doesn’t always produce week in week out. We’re fascinated to see if the Wallaby youngster can steal the headlines from the All Black veteran come Saturday.
On paper and at Eden Park, this is New Zealand’s game to lose plain and simple. They look the vastly more experienced and capable side juxtaposed against an eager and capable but relatively inexperienced Wallaby outfit. Australia could well pack a surprise, and a good showing on Saturday will dramatically boost their confidence in preparation for their final showdown with New Zealand in Perth at the end of the month. They’re slightly more battle hardened than the All Blacks after having had to use all their tricks to win the recent series with France.
Australia will improve make no mistake, but as a first outing against New Zealand this year, Eden Park simply makes them too much of a long shot. It’s likely to be a gusty and windy day in Auckland on Saturday, conditions which suit the more experienced heads in the All Black camp. Nothing is ever a given though, and Australia have often shown a healthy disregard for the form book and come up trumps. After the frustrations of the Lions/South Africa series it’s time for International Test Rugby to get down to business in a competition that often showcases its best attributes and leaves us hungry for more.
Enjoy everyone and we’ll be having a look at the lineups for this and the Lions match in our podcast tomorrow. Till then stay safe and enjoy what should be a great weekend of Test rugby!