As I touched on in Tuesday's Chip And Chase, this week's return leg of the Bledisloe Cup puts the All Blacks in a very interesting position as we look forward to the World Cup. Most importantly is the fact that they are coming off a loss and I've never really known an All Blacks side to dwell too long on a loss, they seem to always find a way to take it on the chin and then get better. 'All Blacks' and 'slump' don't go together too often.
When combined with a final opportunity for players to make their case, it makes for one hell of a clash with the changes for this week's Test showing that Shag still has a few question marks regarding the make up of his top 22-man squad.
I'm super duper chuffed that the backline has minimal changes to it with Ma'a Nonu the only inclusion as he steps in for Sonny Bill Williams. Nonu's presence has me very intrigued because I want to see how this backline goes when it's at, what I might consider full-strength. I won't go over the Israel Dagg/Ben Smith issue again, that will get beaten to death over the next few weeks, but in Sydney we saw an All Blacks backline put under pressure and they didn't respond very well.
Nonu should help everything click into gear as he, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith have played plenty of rugby together in the black jersey and it's a bit of that Queensland Maroons 'synergy via experience' factor coming in to play here. Conrad Smith hasn't been near his best form so will Nonu help him out there and make his life easier? Will Nonu be a better ball-carrier than Williams was, enabling the All Blacks to go forward with greater efficiency?
I expect the Wallabies to again focus on limiting the All Blacks' time and space as they did last week, which will give us a great insight into how the All Blacks are able to adapt. They will need to find ways to counter-act the Wallabies defence and I believe that having Nonu return could be the catalyst for a stronger performance from all the backs.
Despite Liam Messam carrying the drink last week, Victor Vito will start with Jerome Kaino relegated to the bench. Personally, I see this as Shag giving Vito an opportunity in a high-intensity game rather than reacting to Kaino's performance last week. If Messam or Kaino started this week, I would have thought that Shag had his mind made up but by giving Vito the chance to compete against a confident Wallabies side Shag must want to see what Vito can do.
Nor do I think Shag is reacting to what the Wallabies did last week. The Wallabies have switched things up themselves so I don't think Shag's too worried about what they are doing.
The other change in the starting line-up which will serve a similar purpose to the inclusion of Vito is Sam Whitelock replacing Luke Romano. Romano has been good, not spectacular and we haven't seen enough of Whitelock/Brodie Rettalick so I'm excited to see how this locking combo works. Romano's more physical than Whitelock, but Whitelock just seems to always be in the right place at the right time doing his job so I'm not sure who has the edge ... which is why Whitelock's playing.
You've got to agree with Shag's decision to give the front-row the chance to redeem themselves. There is pressure on the likes of Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock as I think Dane Coles is the only front-rower locked in, but if they can show signs of improvement then they should be okay.
We also have plenty of funk on the bench where Kevin Mealamu and Wyatt Crockett return, plus Nepo Laulala keeps his spot. Laulala has been possibly the most impressive new-comer and if he can finish with a strong game in Auckland, we could see him seal a World Cup spot.
With both Kaino and Sam Cane on the bench, I wouldn't overlook Shag giving Kieran Read a spell at some stage. The obvious change to make would be Cane for Richie McCaw, but Kaino could easily replace Read at the back of the scrum and Cane could come on for Vito which would give the All Blacks the chance to test out the Cane/McCaw double act. Alternatively Vito could move into Read's spot and Cane could then play blindside; there's plenty of options there and we'll definitely see something different to the standard Read, Kaino and McCaw combo.
I doubt Colin Slade is ranked above Beauden Barrett for that bench-back utility spot, but Slade gets the chance to make his case this week.
Anyone else want to see Malakai Fekitoa get a really good run off the bench? Like a 30-35 minute run? There's a chance that Fekitoa could be a better fit in this All Blacks backline than Williams is, especially as Conrad Smith needs a strong, quick and agile ball-carrier alongside him. If that's the case and Fekitoa has a beastly game off the bench against the Wallabies, what does that mean for Williams? There'll only be one bench spot available for Fekitoa/Williams, ponder that.
15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Victor Vito, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jerome Kaino, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Malakai Fekitoa
With every week that passes, I love Michael Cheika more. As Aotearoa was debating how to combat the threat of David Pocock and Michael Hooper, Cheika kept his big-picture-glasses on when selecting his team to play in Auckland and he's made a raft of changes that are designed to give players the chance to impress.
Cheika doesn't have much choice in that regard really as there's a bit of depth in the Wallabies and he has some seriously tough decisions to make so he's got to see how players respond in a tough game away from home.
Pocock has been dropped to the bench to make way for Wycliff Palu, who along with a bloke like Scott Higginbottom offer more size and power than Pocock at the back of the scrum. These players will be needed at the World Cup, especially against the Northern Hemisphere teams and heck, the quick/mobile loosie combo might not even prove to be a factor in conditions that will only slow down the game in England. Cheika's got to see what Palu offers, hence he's there.
Quade Cooper at first-five is a very interesting decision, but once again it's a decision that Cheika had to make as Cooper only started in the win over South Africa and didn't really put his hand up in that game. Cheika is rolling out a fresh combination here with Nic White to start at halfback and given that neither Nick Phibbs or Bernard Foley did much right in Sydney, Cheika is still on the hunt for the right combination here.
Drew Mitchell also wasn't overly amazing in Sydney and Henry Speight comes in for him with Speight likely to offer a bit more spice than what Mitchell did. Matt Toomua also starts at second-five, which is a different role for him as he's been a good 'finisher' for Cheika but now has the chance to show what he can do as a starter.
I love Cheika because he showed the 'we can get around the parker quicker than you' card last week in Sydney, but this week he has gone for a bigger, more physical forward pack and completely changed the dynamics of this Wallabies team. That starts with Palu get a start, but don't sleep on Will Skelton who has also been named to start at lock and his combination with James Horwill should give the Wallabies a strong presence around the ruck area and at the point of contact.
Don't get sucked in to thinking that this is the best Wallabies team, just as you shouldn't have got sucked in to thinking that Cheika would roll out something similar to what worked in Sydney. Looking at this bench for this game though makes you wonder about the Wallabies because seeing Matt Giteau, Kurtley Beale, David Pocock, Dean Mumm, James Slipper and Tatafu Polota-Nau all on the bench with bucket-loads of experience is pretty exciting.
Argentina are also set to host South Africa and they have made nine changes to their team which beat South Africa last week. Here's the line up...
15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Juan Manuel Legiuzamón, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Tomás Lezana, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Benjamin Macome, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Pablo Matera, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Juan Pablo Socino, 23 Lucas González Amorosino
South Africa's team also has a bunch of changes headlined by the loss of Jean De Villiers who fractured his jaw last weekend. That means that Jesse Kriel moves back to the midfield with Zane Kirchner starting at fullback but from what I have seen of Willie LeRoux, it's hard to imagine Kirchner being in contention for a starting spot there come crunch time.
Pat Lambie also gets a start at first-five for the Springboks which is interesting as he's looked like Beauden Barrett clone coming off the bench, but the Boks will need to know that Lambie can do a job at first-five should he be required.
While Victor Matfield's return is a big inclusion, I'm also excited to see how Willem Alberts goes as he also returns form injury. Alberts is the last of the Springboks' big loosies to get a run in this Rugby Championship and his work in combination with Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussow will be interesting ... and brutal.
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Lwazi Mvovo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Jan Serfontein