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Preview: New Zealand v Australia

24th August 2012 08:20

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Hosea Gear and Sonny Bill Williams with red noses

Ready for his finale: Williams

Australia will be desperate to end 26 years of Auckland hurt when they run out to face an ominous-looking Kiwi side in Bledisloe Two on Saturday.

Despite last week's defeat at ANZ Stadium being cushioned slightly for the Wallabies by the eight-point losing margin, it should have been more.

They were distinctly second best and lacked the cutting edge their visitors oozed. Cue criticism from an ex-coach and the return of Quade Cooper. Cooper is charged with igniting a spark out wide, but questions remain over how his temperament will hold up at a venue he did not enjoy in 2011.

The returning Reds fly-half was clearly in no mood for reminiscing about the World Cup in front of the press on Thursday as he was gone in just six seconds, revealing in a low-key tone: "I'm back. I'm fit, healthy - I'm ready to go. And I will see everybody at Eden Park." He then placed the mic on the floor and walked away. The puzzled faces of speechless journalists waiting to pose their teasers to him truly were a sight to behold as Cooper seems to be in a zone ahead of Saturday.

It is fair to say that some have had their knives out for both Cooper and Robbie Deans of late and it could be that a poor Rugby Championship might be the final straw in Deans's tenure. A defensive style is one facet that has been in the spotlight but that shouldn't be a major cause for concern this weekend as Cooper and Waratahs wing Drew Mitchell will offer a greater attacking threat than shifted team-mates Adam Ashley-Cooper and Berrick Barnes.

But will say a 20% improvement in performance be enough to overcome the All Blacks?

As former Springbok coach Nick Mallett put it over the weekend, it is now highly-likely that New Zealand will claim the inaugural Rugby Championship. Mallett's reasoning for what some might view as a premature statement was that the All Blacks should beat Argentina home and away and also pick up victory over South Africa at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Add in this weekend's expected result and that would give them five triumphs out of six. Job done.

The Boks will no doubt shake off such a suggestion, but their inability to pick up all five points at home to the Pumas might just come back to haunt them. Consider the rate at which injuries have mounted up after only one round (David Pocock, Tony Woodcock, Bismarck du Plessis, Juan Martín Hernández, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu) and then weigh up teams' depth and it is likely that the later one faces Argentina, the better.

New Zealand will, of course, also not buy into the notion that the title is already sewn up as this is a wounded Wallaby side. And with Cooper set to return to the international fold for the first time since he was taunted by 52,000 All Black fans, there is now a growing subplot to monitor. A fine game from him and he was 'focused on the job at hand' whereas if there is a repeat of the nightmare he endured in that semi-final last year, one fears for such a talent.

Ones to watch:

For New Zealand: This could be the last time rugby union sees Sonny Bill Williams in a New Zealand jersey as after Saturday's fixture he moves to Panasonic Wild Knights before returning to rugby league. Williams scored the last try in his final game for the Chiefs and such is his class, there is a good possibility he will go out of All Black colours with a bang.

For Australia: Did you even have to ask? Quade Cooper returns to the Australian line-up and will be looking to prove a point. It's likely he will defend from full-back but if the Wallabies choose not to employ that tactic, expect Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu to hammer his channel. One thing is for sure and that is it won't be a smooth transition from Super Rugby to Tests so how he responds from what will be a tough opening fifteen minutes is the key. Impressive young talent Michael Hooper is also one to watch at seven.

Head-to-head: What happens on the openside is sure to be intriguing. Richie McCaw got the better of David Pocock last week and the Australian's absence would in many corners be seen as a monumental blow. But do not write off Michael Hooper. He, along with Liam Gill, are two geniune talents coming up through the ranks and they won't take a step back.

Recent results:

2012: New Zealand won 27-19 in Sydney
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

Prediction: The Auckland rot will not end for Australia. New Zealand by 12!

The teams:

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 (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Brodie Retallick, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Ben Smith.

Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 James Slipper, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Liam Gill, 20 Nick Phipps, 21 Anthony Fainga'a, 22 Kurtley Beale.

Date: Saturday, August 25
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 (07.35 GMT; 08.35 BST)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

By Adam Kyriacou
@PlanetRugbyAK

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