The honour of hosting the opening game of the Rugby Championship goes to Sydney as the Wallabies face the All Blacks on Saturday.
The big honour of hosting the opening fixture of 2012's Rugby Championship goes to Sydney as Australia face the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
Argentina may disagree but it's perhaps fitting that this enlarged competition kicks-off with the Tri-Nations holders up against the RWC winners.
How the competition-sealing win in Brisbane on August 27 must feel like an age ago now though for a Wallaby team that is unlikely to retain its title.
Such a negative vibe following a 3-0 series victory over Wales might cause an eyebrow to raise but without James Horwill and a fit Quade Cooper, there just seems to be something missing from Robbie Deans' men as they look to claim what they haven't since 2001 – back-to-back triumphs. Former All Black Richard Loe has gone as far as to say that Australia will only be victorious in just one game out of six because of forward frailties.
Moving on before we do Deans' teamtalk for him.
Since that game at Suncorp Stadium, the All Blacks won 20-6 in the World Cup semi-final in Auckland thanks largely to a moment of magic by Israel Dagg. And after a brief break from the international scene, the try-scoring recipient from Dagg's inside ball, Ma'a Nonu, is back.
Nonu's return has been a touch overshadowed by the prolonged Test career of Sonny Bill Williams (fate maybe that he shouldn't go?) as an eye injury to Conrad Smith sees SBW carry on. Those who like their statistics – and if you are Australian – may be encouraged by Smith's 90 per cent win record in international rugby for he is the glue for their backline.
New Zealand do go into the game on a run of ten consecutive wins and it is worth reminding readers that despite losing the Tri-Nations title last year, Bledisloe Cup bragging rights have remained in their corner. Their largely settled line-up oozes experience and with a nice dash of youth in scrum-half Aaron Smith, they have got a great deal of caps (squad total of 785) in their cabinet. Factor in that the Wallabies last won a Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand 2-0 way back in 2001 and that none of the current Wallabies have featured in a winning series against the All Blacks, then the odds on a change of the guard look long.
Australia could fall short in the front-row and it continues to perplex why Stephen Moore is not starting while their back-row has two good runners in Scott Higginbotham and Dave Dennis, but whether they have the international nous and dog of their rivals is going to be the question. New Zealand meanwhile seem to have an ideal balance of grunt and cutting edge while their bench options make it only one result for me as the ABs strut to Auckland.
Ones to watch:
For Australia: Digby Ioane has not crossed the whitewash in his past eight Tests, with his last try coming against Italy at last year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. That does not make pretty reading for the finisher, who has been on a similar drought for the Reds in Super Rugby. Some say that he gets over the whitewash a lot more when Quade Cooper is playing at fly-half but once again there is no sign of the Wallaby maestro so it is up to others to create – and for him to look for work against the All Blacks this weekend. One cannot underplay how key the Scott Higginbotham/Will Genia axis will be at ANZ Stadium.
For New Zealand: Perhaps the most surprising call made by Steve Hansen was to leave Brodie Retallick out of his starting side in favour of lock Luke Romano. Maybe the workrate of the former over recent weeks was taken into account or maybe I am doing a disservice to Romano – who did perform well during June – but it did come as something as a shock to see the Crusader line up alongside Sam Whitelock. His outing will be interesting to keep an eye on as he gets through a lot of ball carrying in a Brad Thorn-like approach to rugby union. Elsewhere, the international encore of Sonny Bill Williams in tandem with Ma'a Nonu will be great to watch as they go up against two of the strongest centre defenders around.
Head-to-head: Arguably the two best full-backs in world rugby meet at ANZ Stadium and I for one cannot wait to see the duo try their hand at the back. Kurtley Beale is more likely than Israel Dagg to wander up into the first line and help out in the playmaking area, but for the side wearing black, Dagg's ability to glide over the turf always gets supporters juices flowing. When these two teams last met – in the Rugby World Cup semi-final at Eden Park – it was Dagg's classy assist for Ma'a Nonu that led to them holding an unassailable 14-6 advantage at the half-time break so Australia will be wary of the man (pictured). Another area that cannot be left unwatched is undoubtedly the back-row battle. We have two quality opensides, number eights and strong sixes who could shape where this result ends up.
2011: New Zealand won 20-6 in Auckland
2011: Australia won 25-20 in Brisbane
2011: New Zealand won 30-14 in Auckland
2010: Australia won 26-24 in Hong Kong
2010: New Zealand won 23-22 in Sydney
2010: New Zealand won 20-10 in Christchurch
2010: New Zealand won 49-28 in Melbourne
2009: New Zealand won 32-19 in Tokyo
2009: New Zealand won 33-6 in Wellington
2009: New Zealand won 19-18 in Sydney
Prediction: Seven of the last ten games in Australia have seen five-point winning margins or less but I just feel that New Zealand possess a little too much this time. I very much like the look of their backs while Liam Messam's inclusion at flank is deserved. All Blacks by eight!
Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Anthony Fainga'a, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Berrick Barnes, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 David Pocock (capt), 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 James Slipper, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Michael Hooper, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Drew Mitchell.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Brodie Retallick, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Ben Smith.
Date: Saturday, August 18
Kick-off: 20:05 (11:05 BST, 10:05 GMT)
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (WRU), Lourens Van Der Merwe (SARU)
TMO: Matt Goddard (ARU)
By Adam Kyriacou