The Bledisloe Cup, there's just something about it and it slides into a new dimension when played with the World Cup providing a nice backdrop on the horizon. I'm excited, but I'm also realistic and don't see either Bledisloe Cup games as holding the same importance as they would in any non-World Cup year. The tinkering done by Mike Cheika with his Wallabies team should tell you what you need to know, while a few changes in the South African side also point towards a bit of a 'sussing it out' period as I like to call it.
Obviously coaches and players from either team are going to roll out the pre-match hype and no one is going to talk down this game, that would be the dumbest thing I have ever seen or heard. With that, there's no need to overreact should the All Blacks taste defeat or get too excited should they win because in the big scheme of things, the Bledisloe Cup has little impact on what might happen in a World Cup semi final or final.
Some of you might view the move of Ben Smith to fullback with Nehe Milner-Skudder getting a debut on the wing as a sign of nearly being at full strength minus Ma'a Nonu. I'm still very much of the opinion that the best All Blacks team has Israel Dagg at fullback and Ben Smith on the wing, which goes hand in hand with my belief that all the teams in the Rugby Championship aren't showing all their cards just yet.
Milner-Skudder does make things extremely interesting as Charles Piutau has done a fine job in all his three starts so far. While we know that Milner-Skudder can do anything he pleases, Piutau has proven performances in the black jersey on his side, but this is Milner-Skudder's chance to make his case.
The loss of Nonu does provide Sonny Bill Williams with another opportunity in the midfield and it's a great stage for Williams to get that opportunity. In Sydney, Williams will be the most high profile All Black and we'll once again be treated to powerful ball-running and off-loads all over the place in combination with Conrad Smith.
Conrad Smith who was below-par in South Africa, but Conrad Smith who has rarely stayed below-par in a long All Blacks career. It still looks as though our best midfield combination is Nonu/Smith but if for some reason Smith struggles again, he'd be opening the door to the possibility of a Williams/Nonu combo which would fuck so many teams up at the World Cup.
Other than that, this is the best All Blacks team in my opinion so there isn't much to discuss there. The interest for me is on the bench, starting with no Victor Vito or Liam Messam with Shag going for Sam Cane instead. This offers up a nice little sideshow to see who Cane replaces, whether it's Jerome Kaino or Richie McCaw, both would benefit from a nice rest with McCaw moving to the blindside should Cane replace Kaino.
This is more interesting when taking into account the situation with Vito and Messam. I like the look of this bench and there's no room for Vito/Messam with Cane on the bench, so an impressive showing from Cane could make him impossible to leave out of the 22.
Also regarding the bench, I expect we'll see most of the bench used and ideally we need to see the bench whether it's Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala or Beauden Barrett adding to the performance. There's been signs that around the 60 minute mark when we see the subs enter the arena, that things do tend to slip a wee bit and any bench player needs to realise that in a World Cup, that's when they'll be playing and lowering the standards slightly could cost them the World Cup.
We haven't a complete All Blacks performance, which is why we Shag hasn't been overly happy in public. With that said, a tough game against the Wallabies in Sydney is the perfect opportunity to improve on their gritty effort in South Africa as they will be test in all areas by the Wallabies. We do need to keep in the back of our minds however that there will be various moves and schemes that Shag will be holding back, so please, just don't go overboard with the result yeah?
I think a little bit of Shag appreciating needs to be done because he's worked these newbies into the All Blacks masterfully. To give Waisake Naholo, James Broadhurst, Lima Sopoaga and Nehe Milner-Skudder debuts all in the same game is at one end of the spectrum and not giving them any sort of opportunity is at that other end of the spectrum, with Shag drip feeding these four lads into the All Blacks smack bang in the middle of those two extremes. I'm not sure if we'll see the benefits of this in the World Cup, but Shag has given them all a taste and has refreshed the playing group by blooding some newbies, which can only be a positive.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Samuel Whitelock, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
With Michael Cheika shuffling his playing squad around a bit, I can only assume that he's still got plenty of tough decisions to make. Which is fair enough when you look at the players available for the Wallabies as you could argue that there's competition for a starting spot in every position. I wouldn't be surprised if the Wallabies side that takes on the All Blacks in Auckland looks a bit different to this team as Cheika will want to test different combinations, especially seeing as he'll be eyeing up a win against the All Blacks at some stage in the World Cup.
Obviously the big talking point is the inclusion of both David Pocock and Michael Hooper, which is very cool and will provide the Wallabies with a strong presence at the breakdown. Rugby fans and media on this side of the ditch are feeling awfully smug about themselves because everyone kinda knew that this would be the case earlier in the week and if you ask most pundits, they'd probably say that it won't make much of a difference.
I'd counter that by pointing to the biggest strength of the All Blacks and a signature of their style - speed. Everything, whether it be a lineout .... if they don't take the quick throw in, quick taps, running the footy, getting around the park, everything the All Blacks do is done with a ruthless up-tempo nature and it blows teams away. Could you imagine trying to keep up with the All Blacks for 80 minutes? Especially as you would have never faced anything like it in club/franchise rugby.
Having Pocock and Hooper allows the Wallabies to match the All Blacks' tempo and it will greatly assist their ability to get to rucks. McCaw, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino are so good because they immensely physical ... at every ruck - you won't get a rest at any sort of breakdown with these three. This was glaringly obvious in the game against Argentina and South Africa's bigger loosies were able to maintain a strong presence but the Wallabies have opted for mobility, which will be fun to watch.
With that mobility, I think you would need Will Skelton at lock to offer a physical presence, but Dean Mumm gets the start this week. I believe the strongest Wallabies side will have Skelton and that this is a double sided ploy fro Cheika - give Mumm some tough gametime and not quite give the All Blacks the full plan.
Everyone thinks that having Pocock and Hooper together is the thing, but I reckon it will be different with Skelton there as well.
I've got no issues with the Wallabies backline, but Matt Giteau is going to get many big bodies thrown his way. This won't be because he can't tackle, but off-loads will come with Giteau tackling around the legs - he'll make a good tackle but the All Blacks could still create chances. He'll need help to wrap up the ball carrier so don't expect it to be too long before help arrives.
That's where the battle with Matt Toomua for the second-five position gets interesting and Toomua will undoubtedly get a nice run off the bench. I am also curious about Kurtley Beale as he's been stuck, exclusively on the bench and I think he may be the Wallabies' Beauden Barrett. That's definitely not a bad thing and I think it shows where the Wallabies are currently at as they can bring a player like Beale off the bench late in games.
Unless Cheika is fucking with us and he's got Beale locked in to start at first-five or something crazy.
I think the Wallabies have the advantage, not in terms of winning the game but as the underdog, everything will work out well for them. If they win, well they have beaten the All Blacks and confidence will be high heading over to Auckland and the World Cup. If the lose, then I would argue that we haven't seen their World Cup-final-team just yet and they will take the learnings on board and move on because hey, they were expected to lose right?
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (c) 1 Scott Sio,
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale.
We've also got South Africa taking on Argentina and there have been a few interesting changes made by Heyneke Meyer. These changes only strengthen my position that there are still many questions around each of the squads because up to this point we haven't seen a South African midfield with Jean de Villiers in it. He's back to skipper the side and Jesse Kriel moves out to the wing, which only gets me even more excited about the Springboks.
Such is Kriel's form, if he has a few strong outings on the wing he could emerge as their first-choice over JP Pietersen who is currently out injured.
Other than that, their starting side looks reasonably settled with Vincent Koch getting a start in place of Jannie du Plessis who gets a well earned break.
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
We all expect the Springboks to be too good for Argentina in Durban. We don't know the Argentinian line up just yet but we'll bang it in here when we've got it.