Australia vs New Zealand | Saturday 08 August | ANZ Stadium | 12:05
With all the hype surrounding the South Africa vs New Zealand encounter before the competition started, there is a touch of irony that this Test will decide the geographical location of the Rugby Championship trophy for the next twelve months or so. Both teams overcame Heyneke Meyer’s side in dramatic fashion with late second half comebacks. They also breezed past the Argentines in emphatic fashion, all though it must be conceded that the Wallabies did endure a torrid first half at the eStadio Malvinas Argentinas. While both sides hold unblemished records and a bonus point apiece in the competition, the Wallabies sit atop the log due to a one point advantage in points differential. However, with a draw unlikely that solitary point will count for little come the final whistle in Sydney.
This clash will also serve as the first leg of the Bledisloe Cup, with the second fixture taking place in the land of the long white cloud on the 15th of August. While a win for either of these sides will ensure them the Rugby Championship title, the Australians need a win to have a shot at claiming the Bledisloe Cup bragging rights over their old foes. This overlooked Australasian derby could turn out to be the Test match of the year.
To Win (80mins)
New Zealand 4/10
Australia (+5.5) 9/10
New Zealand (-5.5) 9/10
If you had offered Michael Cheika second place as well as victories over the Springboks and Pumas before the tournament began, he would have probably taken it without a second thought. His short tenure has seen a subtle renaissance in Australian rugby. Although the games against the South Africans and Argentines saw the Wallabies struggle for portions of the eighty minutes, the way in which Cheika has reinvigorated his forward pack has been astonishing. Gone are the days of a couple of fat blokes trotting over to ruck and leaving the breakdown battle to the loosies. His tight five now get around the pitch and are a lot more confrontational. Whilst Cheika will accept the plaudits, skipper Stephen Moore’s contribution to this should not go unmentioned. The hooker has lead from the front and was in fine fettle against the Springboks at Suncorp in the opening round. Moore has been ably supported by the likes of Sekope Kepu and Will Skelton, who are never willing to give the opposition an inch.
Whilst Moore and Kefu have retained their starting spots for this weekend, Dean Mumm takes over from Skelton who switches to the bench. Michael Cheika has also opted to go for dual fetchers in an effort to nullify the All Blacks’ threat at the breakdown. David Pocock and Michael Hooper will line up together for the first time in Wallaby jerseys. The backline has also undergone a slight revamp with Matt Giteau returning from injury and fellow veteran Drew Mitchell getting a start on the wing. The Waratahs half back pairing of Foley and Phipps has be retained ahead of the Reds partnership of Guinea and Cooper, who don’t even make the bench.
It has been another vintage campaign from the All Blacks so far, despite missing key players through rest and injury. This tournament has proved why Steve Hansen is envied by rugby coaches across the globe. He has such a plethora of quality players to call upon that injuries are treated as opportunities to blood new talent rather than a handicap to the team. The rise of Lima Sopoaga perfectly illustrates this philosophy. Although Sopoaga will not be part of the match day 23, his performance against the Springboks shows just how much depth Hansen has at his disposal. Sopaga’s starting place is taken by Dan Carter with Beauden Barrett likely to make his long awaited return to the All Black fold from the bench. Barrett is joined in the squad by Ben Smith and Hurricanes teammate Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Smith and Milner-Skudder will operate in a back three that also contains Hurricanes flyer Julian Savea. These three make up what could prove to be world rugby’s most devastating counter attacking force. Hansen has also made two changes to his pack with Luke Romano coming in at lock, whilst Jerome Kaino returns on the blindside. New Zealand have won every edition of the Rugby Championship since its inception in 2012, while the Australians last won the pre-runner to this event in 2011, when it was still just the three sides.
VERDICT: New Zealand (-5.5) 9/10
My money is on the All Blacks to retain the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup with a big win on Saturday. I would go as far as to say that the -5.5 margin should be easily cleared and it may be worth sticking some money on them clearing the -8.5 Margin which offers a great return at 16/10.