Our rugby scribe takes a look at Saturday’s 2016 Rugby Championship opener between Australia and New Zealand.
Defending champions Australia take on the mighty All Blacks in the first Rugby Championship game of 2016. The All Blacks come into this one as heavy favourites, mainly due to the solid displays in their franchises put in during the 2016 Super Rugby season.
The Wallabies will be desperate to upset the odds and atone for their poor showing during their June series against the English, but this will be easier said than done!
Australia v New Zealand | Saturday 20 August | ANZ Stadium | 12:05
To Win (80 Mins)
Australia 22/10 | Draw 20/1 | New Zealand 7/20
Australia (+7.5) 9/10 | New Zealand (-7.5) 9/10
The Wallabies reached some lofty heights in 2015, winning the Rugby Championship and advancing to the Rugby World Cup Final. The men in gold have endured a horrid start to 2016, however, being whitewashed by Eddie Jones’ England in June and only managing to get one of their Super Rugby sides into the quarter-finals of the competition.
The poor start to the year has highlighted Australia’s lack of a quality playing pool. This issue has long been the Achilles heel of Australian rugby with their most successful periods coinciding with the so-called “Golden Generations” – think back to the Gregan/Larkham era and their 1999 World Cup triumph.
The current crop of locally based Australian players are a far cry from their World Cup-winning predecessors or even the players that were knocked out of the 2011 World Cup. While there are one or two silver linings – Western Force utility fullback Dane Haylett-Petty being the brightest of them – it just seems that Australian rugby is struggling to produce quality players at the minute.
There are mitigating factors to this, with Australian Rules and Rugby League snatching up the most talented players with lucrative contracts, as well as the lure of the Euro and Pound seeing a few of the most promising young guns move to European shores.
With the lack of locally based talent, Australian head coach Michael Cheika has been forced to call in the reinforcements from Europe. Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper have all returned to the Australian camp from their European clubs.
While not all of them are guaranteed a start this weekend, I suspect that Giteau and Ashley-Cooper will be part of the run on XV and Genia will play a role off the bench. All three players are capable of making a big impact. And with Kurtley Beale still out injured, Nick Phipps looking a shadow of the dominant nine he was last year, and none of the Australian Super Rugby franchise wingers really making a mark during the 2016 edition of the tournament, Cheika will hope that these three veterans can add some much-needed quality to what looked a rather stagnant Australian backline in June.
Cheika will also want more from his forward pack who were outclassed by England earlier in the year. While some of the officiating at scrum time left a lot to be desired, the Australians were still outclassed at the lineout as well as the breakdown.
The return of David Pocock should help the Wallabies be a bit more competitive at ruck time. They’re likely to struggle at the set piece, though, as the All Blacks have an extremely menacing looking tight five.
The All Blacks come into this one having enjoyed a splendid start to 2016. Not only did they whitewash a very committed Welsh outfit in June, but their Super Rugby franchises absolutely dominated this year’s tournament with four of the five teams getting through to the play-off stage of the competition.
The one issue I did pick up with the New Zealand franchises during the Super Rugby season was their goal kicking. Aaron Cruden ended up with a 55% kicking success ratio while Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett were guilty of missing some absolute sitters, although, Barrett did end the tournament with a 70.8 % kicking ratio which isn’t bad considering he played all his home games at the notoriously windy Westpac Stadium.
Those stats leave a lot of food for thought for All Black head coach Steve Hansen. The New Zealand mentor has been reluctant to start Barrett in the past and has instead opted to go with Chiefs man Aaron Cruden in his run on XV. With Cruden struggling with the boot, and no Damian McKenzie to take over the kicking duties, the sensible decision would be for Hansen to start Barrett.
It’s not only the Hurricanes’ fly-half’s kicking game that has been above that of Cruden’s. The blistering quick pivot was brilliant with ball in hand this during the Super Rugby season. The defensive side of his game has also come on, as well as his ability to marshall a backline. If Barrett does crack the nod for Saturday’s fixture, I reckon the Wallabies are going to be in for a long night at the ANZ Stadium.
The All Blacks don’t only have a star-studded backline, but also a forward pack capable of dominating from the first minute to the final whistle. Their back row of Read, Kane and possibly Kaino are an absolute menace, while the energy that Ardie Savea will bring off the bench is a nightmare for tiring defences.
The Stats That Matter
In total, the two sides have met on 155 occasions, with the All Blacks winning 106 and the Wallabies winning 42. The Australians have been better on home soil, however, winning 25 of the 79 clashes in the ‘Land Down Under’.
The two sides met three times last year with Australia winning once and New Zealand winning twice. The last five games between the sides have seen the total combined score cross the 50 point mark on four occasions.
The New Zealanders have averaged 3.2 tries per game in the last five meetings while the Australians have only mustered up an average of 2.2 per game.
The ANZ Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for the hosts over the years. They’ve won two and drawn one of their seven games against their Trans-Tasman rivals at the ground. They also managed a 27-19 victory over the Kiwis at the same venue last season.
Verdict: New Zealand (-7.5) 9/10
The Aussies will give a much better account of themselves than they did against England in June but the All Blacks will still win this one comfortably.