Sonny Bill Williams’ season-ending injury has widened a rare chink in the All Blacks’ armour for the Wallabies to exploit in their bid for Bledisloe Cup glory.
News that Williams will miss New Zealand’s entire Rugby Championship/Bledisloe Cup campaign after partially rupturing an Achilles tendon in the Rio Olympics sevens is major blow to the world champions, who were already casting around for a new centre combination.
They were counting on Williams to be the main man in their midfield following the Test retirement of centre greats Maa Nonu and Conrad Smith after last year’s World Cup triumph.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s uncertainty over his centres was highlighted in the recent 3-0 home series win over Wales as he experimented with combinations in Williams’ absence.
A veteran of two successful World Cup campaigns, Williams had been expected to miss only the opening Test against the Wallabies in Sydney on Saturday week before making his return after sevens duty.
His injury leaves Hansen with three centres in his squad – Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala – though he’ll surely add another.
While Crotty is dependable, Fekitoa has struggled to kick on at international level and Blues’ strongman Moala could get his chance after impressing in his outing against Wales, despite having just two Test caps.
Which ever way Hansen turns, they’ll take time to develop as a midfield combination, potentially disrupting the All Blacks’ usually lethal wide attack.
Against them, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika can field his World Cup combination of Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani to capitalise on any defensive lapses.
Not that the Wallabies are likely to admit they see the centres as weakness to exploit as they bid to defend their Rugby Championship title and win back the Bledisloe for the first time since 2002.
They keep insisting the depth in New Zealand rugby means the All Blacks can cope with the loss of greats including Nonu, Smith, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after the World Cup and also Williams.
“We’re not worrying about who they’re fielding, who they’re missing, who’s playing where,” said veteran Wallabies winger Adam Ashley-Cooper.
“It’s about just getting our systems in place, believing in what we’re doing, going out there on the night and just being as accurate as we can.”
The All Blacks haven’t lost since falling 27-19 to the Wallabies in Sydney last August, but are equally wary of their trans-Tasman rivals ahead of Saturday week’s showdown at the same venue.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen expects only subtle changes to the Wallabies’ game plan and believes the return from injury of David Pocock and the likely inclusion of European-based backline stars Giteau, Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell will strengthen the hosts.
Pocock was sorely missed in the second and third Tests of Australia’s 3-0 series loss to England in June, while first-choice World Cup lock Kane Douglas is also expected back from a knee injury to bolster the Wallabies set pieces.
“I don’t know that we have ever played a poor Australian rugby team,” Hansen told reporters in New Zealand.
“It’s like our own local (Super Rugby) derbies. You might play a team that is out of form but put them against a local team and all of a sudden their form lifts up and it is the same with the Aussies.
“They hate losing to us and we hate losing to them. They are desperate to get the Bledisloe back.”