The overwhelming Super Rugby success of New Zealand teams against Australian franchises won’t necessarily translate to an All Blacks Bledisloe Cup whitewash of the All Blacks over the Wallabies but it should.
In David Pocock and Michael Hooper, the Wallabies have two exceptional loose forwards blessed with pace and courage.
Pocock’s uncanny ability to steal possession from breakdowns rivals that of former All Black skipper Richie McCaw and in second-five Kurtley Beale and fullback Israel Folau, they have two world-class attacking backs who make breaks and score tries.
While doing that against an All Blacks team laden with Crusaders won’t be easy. Head coach Steve Hansen won’t want the Aussies to dominate possession and territory as easily as the South African Lions did in the Christchurch final against the back-to-back Super Rugby champions.
It was magnificent defence and character along with the brilliance of first-five Richie Mo’unga which clinched that 37-18 result although Hansen has made no bones about his preference for Beauden Barrett as the starting test No 10 against Australia in Sydney on Saturday night.
Nobody doubts the massive contribution Barrett has made to the national team’s cause since beating the challenge of Aaron Cruden in stepping into Dan Carter’s shoes over the past two years. Nor does anyone doubt Damian McKenzie’s ability to set the game alight off the bench.
However, on Super Rugby form, nobody anywhere out-performed Crusaders maestro Mo’unga although only a fool would argue against the probability of the speedy Barrett returning to his best when he puts on the black jersey.
While some critics have suggested Barrett could return to fullback where his brother Jordie has also shone, they should remember that Ben Smith has rivalled Wallaby Folau for the honour of being the world’s best No 15.
With this column penned before today’ announcement of the team, I can only assume Hansen and fellow selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox will remain loyal to those who have done the job for them in the past, provided they are match fit and injury-free.
Clearly Dane Coles and Sonny Bill Williams have not reached that state although the form of Codie Taylor and Ryan Crotty warrants their promotion.
While Crotty can also play centre, he’s a better second-five whose communication skills, strong defence and ability to play off the cuff makes him such an invaluable asset.
It was interesting young Rieko Ioane should score three tries at centre in the All Blacks’ warm-up halves against Otago and a makeshift Canterbury.
Having been crammed for space playing No 12 for the Blues, centre is a place he may eventually own although at present he remains a better left wing.
With Nehe Milner-Skudder still battling to reproduce his 2015 World Cup razzle dazzle, dynamic Waisake Naholo deserves to start on the right.
Having returned strongly after a long spell recovering from back surgery, captain Kieran Read will lead a solid forward pack eager to negate Pocock and Hooper’s ball pilfering
With the Black Ferns having deservedly won semi-professional status after their dominant World Cup performance, their curtain-raiser against the Australian women deserves a big following of fans.
With the women emulating the men in also winning the Commonwealth Games and World Sevens championship, they have made their point in the most emphatic manner.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author