Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup showdown is shaping as a World Cup final sequel – but without more than half of the champion All Blacks outfit.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika on Thursday overhauled his understrength side, whitewashed by England in June, to include 13 of his World Cup final starting XV for the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney.
But All Blacks coach Steve Hansen must make do with just seven survivors – backs Ben Smith and Aaron Smith and forwards Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and skipper Kieran Read – from the team that triumphed 34-17 over Australia last October at Twickenham.
While Cheika did his best to play down any edge in stability and experience, Hansen readily acknowledged the All Blacks couldn’t possibly be as strong without the likes of retired greats Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.
“You don’t lose players like Carter and McCaw and not be weakened by it. Of course it is,” Hansen said.
“You throw in Kevie, who has been one of the great leaders we’ve had, and Conrad and Ma’a, they’ve been great All Blacks.
“But we’ve known for quite some time they were going so we’ve been planning for that.”
At the same time as England swept to a historic 3-0 series victory over the Wallabies during the Australian winter, the new-era All Blacks conquered Wales 3-0 in New Zealand.
“So far they’ve done a pretty good job,” Hansen said of his new-look side.
“They’re not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination.
“But there’s still 800-odd caps in that side. That’s a lot of Test caps. It won’t be through a lack of experience if we don’t perform.”
Cheika has called on France-based veterans Will Genia, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper to bolster the Australian backline.
Genia has been reunited in the halves with Bernard Foley, recalled to start in the No.9 jumper ahead of the benched Nick Phipps despite not having played for seven months while recuperating from knee surgery.
The overseas-based trio gives Cheika 282 Tests of backline experience, with 114-Test stalwart Ashley-Cooper set to surpass David Campese as Australia’s most-capped Bledisloe Cup combatant in his 29th match in the annual trans-Tasman series.
A shining light during the England series defeat, rookie Dane Haylett-Petty has retained a spot on the other wing, with vice-captain Rob Horne relegated to the bench.
Haylett-Petty’s inclusion is the only change to the World Cup final backline, in for Drew Mitchell, who is working his way back to 100 per cent following hip surgery.
Cheika pulled a surprise by naming Western Force No.8 Ben McCalman at blindside flanker ahead of long-time incumbent Scott Fardy, the only World Cup final forward not to earn a start at ANZ Stadium.
“I don’t think it’s a straight comparison like that,” Cheika said.
“‘Fards’ has been in the team for a fair while now and Ben’s been putting pressure on at different times and every time he steps out to play for Australia.”
David Pocock is back at No.8 after missing the final two Tests against England through injury and will line up alongside Michael Hooper and McCalman in the new-look back row.
Kane Douglas returns to the second row alongside Rob Simmons for his first Test start since rupturing his ACL in the World Cup final.
Wallabies: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Giteau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Bernard Foley, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Ben McCalman, Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Kane Douglas, Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore (capt), Scott Sio. Res: Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Dean Mumm, Scott Fardy, Nick Phipps, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Waisake Naholo, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett. Res: Codie Taylor, Kane Hames, Charlie Faumuina, Liam Squire, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea.