Australia v New Zealand, Bledisloe Cup Preview

Certain New Zealand rugby fans were undoubtedly crying into their rather watery beer (which, to be honest, needs a bit of flavour anyhow) over news that their favourite rugby turncoat Quade Cooper isn’t starting this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup match.

Who else can they aim their thoroughly hilarious abuse at? How we’ll miss the subtle humour of signs proclaiming ‘EQC Execute Quade Cooper’. You wags, you. Still, at least he’s on the bench. Maybe you can reach him with a coin or something? That’s what other fans of the mindless kind would do, go on, give it a go, confirm your status as wannabe football fans…

One man they certainly can’t aim their pointless vitriol at is the Wallabies new number ten Matt Toomua because, everyone agrees, he is not only a top bloke, but also the man who should’ve held the jersey during the recent Lions Test series defeat. In selecting the ACT Brumbies’ number ten – one of ten from the losing finalists in this year’s Super Rugby in the matchday squad – new coach Ewen McKenzie has made an almighty statement of intent.

Even the local rugby Aussie press has agreed that it’s the biggest story. Once you get past the seemingly endless column inches dedicated to the two-nation sport of rugby league, you’ll find at least a few pars pondering what this could mean. Are they just saving Quade from getting a thrashing at the hands of his Kiwi brothers? Yes, they are, but that’s not the reason. Is this the end for Quade? No, he’s on the bench and will probably get a run out. Is this sign that McKenzie is going to play Brumbies rugby and not swashbuckling Reds rugby? Not one bit.

Ever since he pulled together his initial 40-man squad McKenzie had been extolling the virtues of the players in his squad and how many of them had taken him by surprise. Toomua was certainly one of them, with his tactical nous and ability to control a game major factors along with the fact he’s seen as a much steadier hand on the tiller than Cooper. “To his credit, Matt has had a really good season and he has been playing up until last week in a team that made the Super Rugby Final.  He’s done a lot of good things and there isn’t any reason he doesn’t deserve a go,” explained McKenzie.

With Brumbies’ team-mate Christian Leali’ifano offering familiarity at 12, experience at 13 in the shape of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Israel Folau providing the eye for the gap and sheer athleticism on wing (he doesn’t drop a ball and if anyone is going to score from a crossfield kick, it’s him), the currently unattached (club wise, not mentally, although…) James O’Connor on the other and then the brilliant Jesse Mogg at the back, the backline is looking well balanced. It has creativity, is has safe pairs of hands, it’s got experience and exuberance. If it can gel straight out of the blocks, you’d fancy its chances of creating holes and havoc against anyone, even the All Blacks. And that’s before you get to Will Genia who is surely the best scrum-half in the world right now, by some distance too (put your hand down, Mike Phillips, you are not even Wales’s best scrum-half).

McKenzie has impressed already with this half of his team for sure.
Although not Steve Hansen, who, when asked by rugby hacks about McKenzie not choosing his team until late in the day, commented; “I actually think the better question is, ‘is he feeling … challenged’ because he doesn’t know which five-eighth (flyhalf) he wants to play,” But McKenzie is a thoughtful man. He works thinks out. He talks politics, psychology and plans, lots of plans. Having learnt his coaching trade at Brumbies, the Wallabies (as assistant to McQueen and then Jones), the Waratahs, Stade Francais and then the Reds, McKenzie is ready for the big job and the they don’t come any bigger than the All Blacks. But if anyone can plan the demise of the world’s greatest rugby dynasty, it’s McKenzie. He is, after all, a qualified town planner. Had he not decided to help out the Brumbies a bit and impress so much they offered him a job, he’d be sorting sewage and transport systems right now (insert own ‘sorting out Aussie shit’ joke here…..).

Willing to make the big decisions, the omission that caused the biggest stir was that of experienced prop Benn Robinson, who the papers continually claim to be highly rated in world rugby. [A ‘highly-rated Aussie prop’, there’s an oxymoron for you.]

Robinson being left out won’t, truth be told, make much difference. Hansen has brought all his big guns to town and it’s hard to see them losing out to their  opposite numbers. That said, if the Wallabies win their own ball you never know…
As brilliant as virtually every player in the All Blacks squad is, Aaron Cruden isn’t Dan Carter and one thing I did learn from the Australian press this week (there weren’t many) was that his kicking stats have been steadily declining. Did I mention he isn’t Dan Carter?

Other key things. Liam Messam is a big loss to the backrow; Ma’a Nonu has apparently been having a bit of trouble with his ankle; there’s a comparatively new scrum-half in town with Aaron Smith forming a new partnership with Cruden; and Sonny Bill Williams is in Sydney. But still playing for the Roosters league team – you’d think he could at least bring his boots to the ANZ and get a run out for the Abs… just ten minutes or something.

What does all this amount to, aside from ten minutes of your life A classic Bledisloe Cup tie? A 100th win for the All Blacks over Australia? Cooper getting hit with a coin due to an irresponsible blog post? A surprise win for the home side and their new coach?
It’s going to be close, so close in fact that despite all evidence and expert opinion suggesting an All Black win, I’m going to go the other way. Because, well, what do I know?!

Prediction: Wallabies

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