New Zealand vs. Australia, Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday Aug. 17, 7.35pm [NZT], 5.35pm [AEST], 7.35am [GMT]
This has been some Bledisloe week.
The stage is set for one of the great trans-Tasman deciders after a dramatic few days of verbal exchanges following the sending off of Scott Barrett in Bledisloe I. The local rivalry has seemingly gone up a few notches, with the assistance of the media, with both teams accused of foul-play off-the-ball incidents that otherwise went unpunished in Perth. Barrett was rightfully handed a three-week ban - which has left him free to play the All Blacks' opening game at the Rugby World Cup - for his dangerous shoulder charge on Michael Hooper, just as the All Blacks pointed the finger at the Wallabies' treatment of Sam Cane, to which one Australian media outlet then found a litany of similar incidents from Cane himself.
It's just a little bit spicy.
The good news for the All Blacks is that they were in a similar position four years ago when they had again lost to Australia the week prior, and then came out in Auckland and blew the Australians off the pitch 41-13. This Test is also being played at their spiritual home and the scene of an unbeaten run that stretches back to 1994 -- one that grows a further eight years against the Wallabies -- Eden Park. But there have been just a few chinks in this New Zealand side, too, and coach Steve Hansen has reacted to last week's defeat by punting some formerly first-choice personnel. The two-time world champions are yet to convince anybody they are clearly the team to beat in Japan, nor that the dual-playmaker system of Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett can excel, but one win would change all that. And they know no better place to get it than Eden Park.
There had been signs in the Wallabies' earlier Rugby Championship Tests of improvement, if not a complete overhaul of an attacking approach that was completely directionless at the end of 2018; but few could have predicted the astonishing pace, physicality and intensity they showed from the outset at Optus Stadium. It was Australia's best performance since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The trick now for Australia is to repeat that performance; too often across the Cheika era have his side taken one step forward but quickly retreated in taking two paces back. The coach has stuck to his guns unlike four years ago when he threw Quade Cooper into fly-half and benched David Pocock; Cheika and his fellow selectors Scott Johnson and Michael O'Connor giving the XV - the injured Rory Arnold aside - the chance to create history and bring the Bledisloe Cup back to Australia for the first time in 17 years.
How the All Blacks win it ...
Forget trying to tweak combinations for the World Cup, this Test is all about victory and retaining the Bledisloe Cup. What the All Blacks will have realised upon reviewing last week's video was that they let their frustrations get the better of them in Perth, which culminated in Barrett's brainfade, and also lacked accuracy and physicality at the breakdown which saw them penalised heavily by Frenchman Jerome Garces. They are relatively simple fixes however and there was enough in the patches of good play they did produce to suggest that things could all come together. But it starts up front, and the All Blacks forwards will know they need to be significantly better than they were last week.
How the Wallabies win it ...
Australia controlled possession and territory so well in Perth that they went to the break with both statistics above 80 percent in their favour. They are highly unlikely to secure such a dominance again, so must be mindful of how exactly they use the ball at Eden Park. The All Blacks were caught out by Nic White's control from the back of the ruck last week, so Australia will need to have advanced their game plan so that it takes a little heat of little scrum-half when necessary. The rest is simple: Bring the same intensity to the breakdown, organization in defence, and crispness of skill execution in attack and they will be right in the contest. It's whether they've got that extra 10-15 percent improvement again on last week that will determine whether they end a 33-year drought in Auckland.
The All Blacks selectors haven't sat on their hands, with three high-profile players dumped after poor performances in Perth; wingers Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane have been axed, so too tighthead prop Owen Franks. The backline changes have opened up opportunities for Crusaders flyers Sevu Reece and George Bridge, who boast just four Tests between them, while Nepo Laulala will pack down in the front-row in place of Franks. The two other changes see the return of Sonny Bill Williams, which pushes Anton Lienert-Brown to outside centre, while Patrick Tuipoluto is Barrett's replacement at lock.
Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Jackson Hemopo, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, Jordie Barrett.
The Wallabies selectors have backed their boys to do the job again with just one injury-forced change to their starting XV. It is however a big one, with powerhouse lock Rory Arnold sidelined by a hand injury. That opens the door for Adam Coleman for whom Cheika has always had a fondness. Young Reds back-rower Liam Wright will debut from the bench, while veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper could offer valuable experience late in the contest.
Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda, Alan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio. Replacements: Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Liam Wright, Will Genia, Matt To'omua, Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Key positional battle: Sam Cane vs. Michael Hooper
Given the week's events, there is only one battle to which we can apply the spotlight, it of course comes at No. 7. Hooper was dubbed a "whiner" in the New Zealand media last week for the groan he let out after Barrett's shoulder charge, a description a former Wallaby replied to in describing the lock's action as an intentional action to hurt Hooper. Take from that what you will. The truth of the matter is that Hooper dominated Cane last week despite the All Blacks taking a two-pronged approach to the breakdown. Cane will have been disappointed with his output and his ineffectiveness at the breakdown, leaving him primed to atone on Saturday night. If Hooper plays like he did last week the Wallabies will go close to winning, but you get the feeling Cane will have a greater say on this weekend's contest, too.
New Zealand 1.15, Australia 5.50
It's taken four years, but the Bledisloe Cup is finally on the line again. Steve Hansen has long been on the record as saying there were only two trophies that mattered this year, one being the World Cup and the other the Bledisloe. That may explain some of the All Blacks shortcomings of recent weeks, but there is no doubting this is a vastly superior Wallabies side to the one that's spluttered over the last three years. Can they take that next step and really challenge the All Blacks at home? They can, but it still won't be enough to end 17 years of Bledisloe pain for Australian rugby. The All Blacks grow another leg at Eden Park.
New Zealand by five.