Tonight the Wallabies and All Blacks will face off in game 1 of the Bledisloe Cup series, which doubles as the opening match of the Rugby Championship. The New Zealanders are deserved favourites, but a sense of nervous optimism has pervaded Australian rugby recently, and this game could well be a lot closer than many are tipping.
The match will be won and lost in 5 key areas where the Wallabies will need to aim up.
5 key Bledisloe Cup match ups
The front row
The Wallabies front row is looking stronger than it has in years, with both starters and reserves all of international standard. The All Blacks, meanwhile, continue to set the standard for dynamism in the tight forwards – although Taniela Tupou gives them a run for their money. The scrums should be tight tonight, and if either front row gets on top it could be a decisive factor.
The back row
The back row is one area where the Wallabies should have a clear advantage in the Bledisloe Cup. Between Michael Hooper’s speed, David Pocock’s ability to steal the ball at the ruck and the running power of Lukhan Tui the All Blacks will most likely try to contain the Australian threats, rather than assert their own dominance. The “Pooper” double act in particular will threaten the All Black’s continuity with ball in hand.
Foley vs Barrett
The two fly-halves will be crucial in this match. Bernard Foley had a fantastic Super Rugby season and is thriving with his partner-in-crime Kurtley Beale. Foley was the most accurate goal-kicker, highest overall points scorer, had the most line break assists and the second most try assists across the competition – behind a forward pack that struggled to simply gain parity. Beauden Barrett, meanwhile, had an ordinary Super Rugby campaign, but is the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, which he has held 2 years running. Their battle will be one of the more intriguing individual duels over the Bledisloe Cup.
The two centre pairings provide a clear New Zealand advantage – at least defensively. The All Blacks have simply picked the Crusaders pair in Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue, who are fresh from defending the Super Rugby premiership. The Wallabies have picked regular inside-centre Kurtley Beale, but outside Reece Hodge is making his first international appearance in the position. The pair will be fine in attack – any combination featuring Kurtley Beale is always going to be a threat – but will need Hooper to help them out in defence, particularly from the set piece.
Folau vs Smith
Israel Folau and Ben Smith are probably the two best fullbacks in rugby, and they have very contrasting styles. Folau is an out and out strike player, who is used to chase kicks and break through holes. Smith is more of a game manager, and is less athletic than Folau but possesses a better rugby brain. He will probably be able to predict what Folau will try and do in attack – but knowing what is coming is very different to stopping it. This will be the most entertaining clash of the Bledisloe Cup.
These 5 key clashes will decide the result of game 1 of the Bledisloe Cup, and the Wallabies do have a fair chance if they can get their defence right. This clash is building up to be a big one.