Tonight’s Test match at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane decides the Castrol Edge Tri Nations championship for 2011. The Wallabies go into this game hoping to take the title for the first time since 2001. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that there are more important things than the shiny TN trophy on the table.
It hasn’t been a vintage year for the competition. Bookended by the SupeRugby finals and the coming World Cup, it hasn’t been contended as fiercely as in past years. South Africa sent a second-string squad to play the first two matches, and New Zealand followed suit for last week’s fifth game. Australia alone has contested every match, and it’s been worth the trouble. The victory in the Republic two weeks ago set up this decisive meeting with the All Blacks, but more than that, it’s helped the Wallabies settle on a stable 22 — allowing for a little interchangeability in the winger, back row and lock departments.
Tonight’s run-on lineup has three changes to the Durban version. James O’Connor is undoubtedly a valuable Wallaby asset but his absence through suspension has brought the potent Anthony Faingaa into the XV, addressing the concern many of us have had about strike power in the centres. Adam Ashley-Cooper goes to the right wing, a place where he may well be more useful as a power finisher, and Rob Horne sneaks onto the pine. Radike Samo and Dan Vickerman run on; Scott Higginbotham goes to the bench and Nathan Sharpe has been rotated out.
This is actually Samo’s first start since the SupeRugby final, but don’t expect him to play the full 80 minutes. Robbie Deans seems to have discovered the power of the bench and he’ll be using the big Fijian, Higgers and Cliffy Palu (if and when he’s available) as second-half impact swaps for each other. Same with his locks and flankers, and for that matter with Barbarians Berrick Barnes and Drew Mitchell.
Notice that I’ve already started talking about RWC selections? That’s one of the things that slightly overshadows this title fight. But I don’t think that World Cup form is even the biggest question mark hanging around. The main issue at stake is this: have Robbie Deans’s rebuilt, re-engineered Wallabies finally achieved true competitiveness with the long-dominant All Blacks?
Auckland was a setback, no doubt about it. It wasn’t the debacle that some commentators wanted to call it; the problem was simply that the New Zealanders controlled the game and kept the Wallabies from contesting properly. And that will happen again tonight, if the Wallabies don’t prevent it right from the kick-off.
Speaking of kick-offs, the restarts are something the Wallabies must do better in. Other critical areas for improvement are what the experts call ‘execution’ and we punters call ‘handling’, and Quade Cooper’s decision-making under pressure — specifically, how he times his choice to call for the ball and what he does with it when he gets it. His effectiveness in that regard will depend on two things: whether the Wallabies forwards can control the breakdown and pull quick ball out of it, and whether the All Blacks’ backs can get up among their counterparts as quickly as they did in Auckland.
The New Zealanders’ 22 is pretty close to the Auckland lineup. Sam Whitelock and Adam Thomson start at the expense of Jerome Kaino and Ali Williams, and there is a new pair of wingers: Cory Jane and Zac Guildford are in for Sivivatu and Gear. Ice Toeava has the last seat on the bench and Sonny Bill Williams is nowhere to be seen. Expect their high-speed, high-impact tactics to be enforced with the usual ruthlessness and occasional lawlessness.
I think the Wallabies are going to win this game, but I can’t imagine how it’s going to play out. I don’t see a lot of tries being scored, and few penalty goals either. My best guess is that the contest will be tight for 60 minutes and then the talent, energy and flair of the men in gold will win out. Wallabies by 6.
Tri Nations Match 6 and Bledisloe Cup Match 2
Australia v. New Zealand
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Saturday 27 August; kick-off 8.00pm AEST
Wallabies: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Dan Vickerman, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu. Reserves: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Salesi Ma’afu, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Rob Horne.
All Blacks: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock. Reserves: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Isaia Toeava.
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert, Cobus Wessels
TMO: Matt Goddard