Bruising Bledisloe battle awaits
August 15, 2013
All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden will go up against Wallabies playmaker Matt Toomua in Sydney on Saturday © Getty Images
Australia will launch their latest bid to prise the Bledisloe Cup from New Zealand's grasp when the two sides go head-to-head in the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney on Saturday night.
The All Blacks have dominated the battle for trans-Tasman bragging rights in recent years having held the sizeable silverware for the last decade. The Wallabies may have had their successes in that time - most recently in Brisbane in 2011 on their way to the Tri-Nations title - but they have failed to match the consistent excellence of their neighbours who collected their 11th southern hemisphere crown last year.
Australia enter this latest showdown - the first of three Cup clashes in the next three months - on the back of a demoralising series defeat to the British & Irish Lions last month that prompted an end of Robbie Deans' tenure as the Wallabies' coach and he has since been succeeded by Ewen McKenzie. There has been no such turmoil in New Zealand with coach Steve Hansen having seen his side warm-up for the defence of their title with a hard-fought series victory over France in June.
The Wallabies have opted to inject some new blood into the mix in the hope of reversing their fortune but they are not the only side boasting fresh faces with New Zealand captain Richie McCaw back in black having returned from a sabbatical aimed at re-charging his batteries.
Australia v New Zealand: Head-to-Head
Australia - Player to Watch: Fly-half Matt Toomua pulled the strings for the Brumbies throughout a Super Rugby season that ended with a narrow defeat to the Chiefs in the final. He also helped orchestrate a victory over the British & Irish Lions but can he transfer that form to the Test stage?
Australia - Team News: The Wallabies have named five uncapped players in their squad - headed by playmaker Toomua who makes his debut at fly-half. His fellow Brumbies - Scott Sio, Scott Fardy, Nic White and Tevita Kuridrani - have all earned places on the bench. The starting line-up shows eight changes to that beaten in the 3rd Test against the Lions - Ben Mowen shifts to No.8 and James O'Connor to the wing with prop James Slipper, lock Rob Simmons, flankers Hugh McMeniman and Michael Hooper, fullback Jesse Mogg and Toomua also handed starts.
New Zealand - Player to Watch: Few doubt whether Richie McCaw will still be able to cut it in international rugby having been out of action for most of the year but it will be interesting to see if he is up-to-speed on his first outing Test since his recent return.
New Zealand - Team News: McCaw returns to lead an experienced-looking line-up that shows six changes to that which started the 3rd Test against France in June. The most notable is the selection of Aaron Cruden at fly-half with Dan Carter sidelined through injury. Elsewhere, Julian Savea returns to the left wing and Aaron Smith starts at scrum-half. McCaw is back at openside while Steve Luatua was a late inclusion at blindside following an injury to Liam Messam. Tony Woodcock will pack down at loose-head with Wyatt Crockett another absent through injury.
Key Battle: These sides boast plenty of talent but the most fascinating battle will arguably be between the respective back threes. Australia will start with Jesse Mogg, Israel Folau and James O'Connor while New Zealand will offer up Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Julian Savea - game-breakers aplenty.
Trivia: Former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans won his first clash against the All Blacks - a 34-19 victory in Sydney in 2008.
Stats: Australia have lost their last three games against New Zealand at ANZ Stadium in Sydney by a combined 10 points.
Betting: Fancy Israel Folau to return to his try-scoring best? Bet365 have the Wallabies flyer at 9/1 for the opening score. Or how about the All Blacks to dominate once again - a victory by 11-15 points will pay 6/1.
"We could have gone many different ways at fly-half as we have a lot of good options there, but in the end we see some great tactical opportunities starting the game with Matt."
"Australia hasn't had a great run against us for a wee while now. That's all been attributed to Robbie Deans, which I think is a wee bit unfair. Everyone seems to think that Ewen's going to make the difference so there's got to be pressure on him. What happens if it doesn't work?"
Prediction: Expect the Wallabies to offer hope of a brighter Bledisloe future only for the All Blacks to burst their bubble and extend their trans-Tasman torture.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.