Bledisloe battle set to resume
August 4, 2011
ESPN Australia's Russell Barwick and Matt Burke preview the clash%]
The battle for the Tri-Nations crown will intensify on Saturday with New Zealand and Australia set to go head-to-head at Eden Park in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of the year.
Both sides have already accounted for an under-strength Springboks side - the Wallabies winning 39-20 in Sydney and the All Blacks victorious 40-7 in Wellington - with this weekend's game set to go a long way to deciding this year's title.
Many have tipped these two sides to dominate this year's Rugby World Cup with this latest showdown perhaps a dress rehearsal for the tournament finale that will play out on the same ground on October 23. Adding another intriguing element to this game is the fact that a Wallabies-heavy Reds side pipped an All Blacks-dominated Crusaders team to this year's Super Rugby crown.
An 'epic' battle awaits and the good news is that there is at least one more battle between these two titans to look forward to this month with Brisbane the venue for the return clash on August 27.
New Zealand - Player to Watch: No.8 Kieran Read was in sensational form for much of 2010 but will he be able to reach the same level of performance in his first international outing of the year against an in-form Wallabies side?
New Zealand - Team News: The All Blacks have made sevens changes to the side that crushed the Springboks last time out. Owen Franks is to replace his brother Ben at tight-head prop, Keven Mealamu is back at hooker with the combative Andrew Hore on the reserves bench while Brad Thorn is at lock alongside Ali Williams and Kieran Read return at No 8. Scrum-half Piri Weepu has been picked to make his first Test start since last year's Bledisloe Cup victory in Sydney, Hosea Gear returns from a hamstring injury to start his first Test of the year on the left wing and Sitiveni Sivivatu is on the right wing.
Australia - Player to Watch: It is difficult to miss Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper and he is sure to be centre of attention once again on Saturday. If he is to steer his side to great things at the World Cup then this is the time to lay down a marker.
Australia - Team News: The Wallabies will field the same starting XV that accounted for the Springboks a couple of weeks ago but have made three changes to their reserves bench. Scrum-half Luke Burgess, lock Dan Vickerman and winger Lachie Turner have been included in the squad. Burgess returns from a fractured hand to provide back up for Will Genia, while Vickerman's addition comes after he played 80 minutes of club rugby last weekend. He replaces another experienced campaigner in Nathan Sharpe, who didn't make the cut for the trip across the Tasman. The selection of Turner means the Wallabies will have a four-three split between forwards and backs on the bench, as opposed to the 5-2 in their two tests so far this year.
Key Battle: Without a doubt - Carter v Cooper. The two most dynamic talents in the international game resume their rivalry at Eden Park. They have only met once before with Cooper stealing the show in Hong Kong last year in a memorable display that DC will not have forgotten.
Trivia: The last example of an Australian win on New Zealand soil was in 2001, when the Wallabies scored 23-15 in Dunedin. The All Blacks have won the 11 games that have been played between the two teams in New Zealand since that match.
Stats: All Blacks midfield backs Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith will set a new milestone on Saturday when they are paired together for the 29th time, the most experienced midfield partnership in All Blacks history.
"The Australians aren't in awe of us, they probably don't even respect us." - All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen stokes the Bledisloe Cup fires.
"If you're good enough, age shouldn't matter too much." - Wallabies coach Robbie Deans is not concerned by the All Blacks' superior experience.
Prediction: The stage is set for something special with not only southern hemisphere supremacy and the small matter of the Tri-Nations title up for grabs but also a priceless psychological advantage on offer to the winner. Expect the All Blacks to extend their Eden Park record but not before a scare or two.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.