In the first of our previews of the weekend’s opening rounds of the Rugby Championship we look at the second round of the Bledisloe Cup for Australia and New Zealand which also happens to be the opening salvo for both in this year’s Rugby Championship. Last weekend’s encounter between the two in the first of three Bledisloe Cup matches (the latter two being part of the annual Rugby Championship), saw Australia struggle with execution and an inability to contain a decidedly rusty looking All Black side. Australia made an impressive late rally in the final ten minutes making the 33-25 scoreline much more respectable, but it was too little too late. New Zealand are unlikely to be as average as they were last week, and Australia it would appear still have too many fundamentals to get right, before talk of breaking the aura of invincibility that the stadium seems to give the All Blacks can be taken seriously.
In order to keep their Bledisloe Cup dreams alive, as well as make a statement of intent heading into the Rugby Championship, Saturday’s game is critical for the Wallabies and despite talk in the press to the contrary the pressure is all on them. The All Blacks simply have to step up to their customary levels of excellence, which seemed a bit lacking last weekend, to contain a Wallaby side that will ramp up in intensity and hopefully execution compared to last Saturday’s showing.
Either way it’s likely to be a belter of a match and a great start to this year’s Rugby Championship. The odds may be against Australia, but all the ingredients are there for one hell of a Test match between two sides bursting with talent and unlikely to take any prisoners.
So here’s what got us talking looking forward to Saturday’s encounter.
Time to focus
After a pretty solid series against France it was a surprise to see the Wallabies Hooker Paenga-Amosa struggle so much with his lineout throwing last weekend. Admittedly the stiff Auckland breeze wasn’t exactly helping matters but he really failed to make an impact, and at scrum time, New Zealand veteran Codie Taylor was clearly getting the upper hand. The Wallabies need a big game from him on Saturday, and given the stakes it is perhaps surprising that Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie didn’t decide to start Jordan Uelese instead, who in his nine minutes on the pitch last weekend managed to score a try. However, we hold with the theory that Paenga-Amosa is still Australia’s number one choice based on his Super Rugby form with the Reds, and that Uelese is your impact man. Nevertheless, we reckon that Uelese is likely to see substantially more time on the pitch than he did last week, especially if Paenga-Amosa struggles once more to make his presence felt.
His stocks are going up
Of players likely to make their mark for Australia this Rugby Championship, we feel that second rower Darcy Swain is likely to get better week by week. He was one of the few players who put in a consistent performance last weekend for the Wallabies, and overall put in 65 quality minutes for his side. If Hooker Paenga-Amosa’s throwing at lineout time had been more accurate we would probably have even more to say about the Wallaby newcomer. He put in a superb eighty minutes against France in the final test of the series last month, and didn’t seem overly intimidated by New Zealand’s legendary second row partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in the Bledisloe Cup opener. In short, a player to watch.
Just needs time to breathe
It’s always a bit daunting when between the two of you, you only have eight caps but are facing an All Black pairing that has 125 to their credit. To be fair though to scrum half Tate McDermot and especially fly half Noah Lolesio, we felt they made a pretty fair fist of it. Sure Lolesio only landed 2 of his seven shots at the posts, but considering his age and experience and the howling breeze whipping around Eden Park last Saturday night you can almost forgive him. We are fairly certain that he’ll have spent plenty of time at the kicking tee this week, and with the wind not forecasted to be as strong on Saturday, expect to see a much more solid performance from the 21 year old Wallaby playmaker this weekend. Given his lack of experience and the caliber of the opposition he was up against, we thought he was remarkably composed last weekend. He definitely seems more comfortable with Matt Toomua in the center channels, as there was a marked improvement in his execution and decision making when the veteran Wallaby center came off the bench in the final quarter.
As for scrum half Tate McDermott, he also seemed to improve as the game wore on. It’s always going to be hard to live up to the lofty benchmark set by your opposite number when it’s no less than All Black centurion Aaron Smith. However, McDermott is a talent in the making in a position that up till now the Wallabies seemed to be lacking options. He still has a lot to learn but this is definitely a player who could aspire to the standards set by Will Genia or more recently Nic White, with the latter warming the bench for this match. For both rookies, give them time to mature but with the World Cup only two years away now is the time to let them breathe.
Mirror, Mirror who is the fastest of them all?
The statistics on these two make for exciting reading this year across Super Rugby and Tests played so far. New Zealand’s Will Jordan may be dominating the tries department at 18 to 4, but when it comes to defenders beaten Koroibete is just as good at 62 compared to 61 for the All Black. In metres and passes made both players are outstanding examples of contestants who love to run and chuck the ball around and their statistics are pretty even. However, it’s Koroibete’s defence which is a larger image of serious Australian issues with the whole basic concept of how to defend, where there is a sudden mismatch between the two. New Zealand’s Will Jordan has made 56 tackles and only missed 14, whereas Koroibete has had to make 83 and missed 45. In short an 80% tackle success rate for New Zealand meets 65% for Australia. It’s hard to see how Australia and Koroibete are going to be able to keep Jordan who has been a try scoring machine for the Crusaders in check. With Koroibete on the field and on song, Australia are a different beast and he was sadly missed last week. However, Jordan looks the complete package for New Zealand, and expect to see plenty of him as the Championship unfolds. It’s going to be a fast paced battle of wits out wide between these two quality wingers and definitely one of the highlights of the Eden Park dustup.
Much like South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe, All Black fullback Damian McKenzie puts paid to the argument that you have to be big to play this game of ours. The fleet footed fullback, despite looking like he needs to spend a week on a pure steak diet, manages to play with an ability that is more akin to fearlessness than recklessness. His ability to turn on a dime and leave defenders clutching at thin air is quite remarkable. A highly adventurous player with an eye for the gap, and ability to wriggle free of tacklers twice his size, McKenzie is New Zealand’s wildly unpredictable maverick. When he is having an off day it’s not pretty to watch, but increasingly those are becoming the exception to the norm. Normal service from the impish last line of defence is a joy to watch, and whenever he has the ball expect the unexpected. Add to that a fairly handy boot if needed at goal kicking time, and McKenzie just gets better every year – a fact clearly not lost on the All Black coaching staff. He’s a player who really fits none of the traditional molds but is such an asset to his team and as a result we can expect to see him featuring heavily in the highlights reels in the next few months.
It should be a cracking Test match between two quality sides on Saturday. The Wallabies know that even though the odds are against them, losing is simply not an option this weekend. Furthermore the added motivation of getting one over your old rival on a ground that is one of Test Rugby’s most sacred, is likely to put an extra spring in Australia’s step. They will bring an added level of intensity to their game which will hopefully be allied to a more clinical approach to their execution of the basics. Get that right, shore up their defenses and they will be competitive make no mistake. However, to pull a fast one on an All Black side holding all the cards at the moment and at Eden Park to boot, is probably a bridge too far for this group of talented but rather green Wallabies.
We’ll be having a look at the Springbok/Puma match by tomorrow at the latest, and we’re also putting out a podcast looking at the lineups for tomorrow’s Eden park clash as well as some of the relevant statistics pertaining to last weekend’s encounter between Australia and New Zealand.
Till then, stay safe everyone!