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The talking points: Bledisloe 1

Matt Giteau (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
18th August, 2016
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It kind of feels like regular rugby has slipped from view over the last few weeks, as the Olympics sevens captured the global attention in style. But the 15-a-side game is back with a vengeance this weekend, with the biggest game of the year on the trans-Tasman calendar.

The Bledisloe record is well known, and generally doesn’t make for good reading.

Even in winning the first match last year, it was the Wallabies’ first win in Sydney in six years, though that streak included two single-point losses and a draw.

Regardless of the record, the Wallabies simply must start the Bledisloe series with a win in Sydney this weekend.

If the Wallabies win, should Spiro take some credit?
Quite possibly, I’d say.

His suggestion a fortnight ago in the Fairfax press that the Wallabies should only use ‘Giteau’s law’ in Rugby World Cup years certainly caused a stir, particularly the suggestion that selection of European-based players for the first Bledisloe would “be blocking younger players who have the skills, energy and potential to become star Wallabies.”

Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper (and Drew Mitchell) didn’t miss with their replies via social media, no doubt thrilled to read Spiro’s judgement that “all these players are past their best, to put it kindly.”

Which means that now they have to go out and prove Spiro wrong, by putting in performances that very clearly show the benefits of the picking the vastly experienced European-based players.

It was clear in June that the Wallabies lacked any backline firepower against England, and so these guys need to repay the faith shown in bringing them home to be that missing spark.

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So no doubt they’ll be motivated. And that’s wonderful news. The Wallabies desperately need to start the Rugby Championship well, and I’m sure Spiro would take one for the team if his words spark match-winning performances.

But what is the best way to use the overseas-eligible players? There’s no doubt the Wallabies got good results from the policy last year, and Michael Cheika makes a solid point when he says the policy was brought in to boost depth.

It can’t be relied upon all the time though, which was the central theme to Spiro’s column, but I disagree that it should be saved for Rugby World Cup years.

Kurtley Beale shouldn’t be rushed back i for the run-in to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan if he hasn’t played a Test in more than three years by then, for example. Clearly, it would have to be a balancing act; a case-by-case selection that perhaps just bolstered problem positions.

Certainly, there’s no lack of centre options for the Wallabies at the moment, which speaks to Spiro’s point about the returning options “blocking younger players”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, particularly if the Wallabies get the win.

Must win in Sydney. It’s that simple for the Wallabies
The Wallabies could win the Bledisloe in Wellington next weekend, but the task will be almost impossible if they don’t win in Sydney this weekend.

The third Bledisloe Test will be played at Eden Park on October 22, and the record there is far from ideal. The record in Wellington is only marginally better, the All Blacks haven’t lost at the Cake Tin since England got up by two points in 2003, and Australia’s last win in four previous attempts was the famous John Eales Test back in 2000.

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The Wallabies have to win twice to get their hands on the giant trophy for the first time in their careers, and having to win two games in New Zealand would be enough for the bookies to hand you a pen and blank stub. And laugh, while they took your money at whatever odds you chose to write down.

So it has to start this weekend. The Aussies have to be good enough to take advantage of what is suddenly a vulnerable-looking midfield after George Moala was ruled out earlier in the week. Yes, they’ll have to win the breakdown contest too, but if they’re are going to win, it will come playing close to the line, and exploiting any chinks in the New Zealand midfield defence.

Selection gambles on both sides
Steve Hansen kicked us off yesterday, naming his side early and settling the Barrett-or-Cruden debate at flyhalf. Whichever way he went was going to see an excellent player named, and it’s hard to argue with Beauden Barrett’s form for the Hurricanes in their run to the title.

But Barrett is probably the riskier of the two, with his extremes between brilliant and not-so-much a lot wider, and his margin for error also a touch higher than Aaron Cruden’s. But Barrett will do things on the field that Cruden just can’t. And that’s exciting, no doubt.

The lack of midfield coverage on the bench is probably forced by the current injury toll, but the lack of bench lock was surprising, particularly when they could’ve guessed that the Wallabies would play David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the starting side.

But then Cheika had his go, and made Hansen look like Captain Conservative.

It’s hard to know what was the bigger shock, Ben McCalman starting or Scott Fardy to the bench.

Fardy was one of the Wallabies’ best in June, and his combination with Pocock helps make up for Hooper’s shortfall over the ball. Fardy on the bench then makes the selection of Dean Mumm a tad curious, and Mumm the benefactor of Sean McMahon’s reported broken nose (I can’t think of any other reason).

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Here’s a great obscure factoid, courtesy of the Green and Gold Rugby crew – for the first time in history, the Wallabies will start wingers with hyphenated names!

I am glad that Dane Haylett-Petty has held his spot, I just hope now that he is part of the team’s tactical kicking arsenal.

Allan Alaalatoa will become Wallaby number 896 when he comes off the bench, and if that’s not daunting enough, he’ll do it packing down on the darker side of the front row. I can only hope he’s been doing a lot of it at training over the last few weeks, because he packed at tighthead maybe once or twice for the Brumbies this season. Maybe.

Cheika looks to be giving the Rugby World Cup team another shot, with 13 of the XV who started at Twickenham in October starting again this weekend. Ten of the side named also started in the Bledisloe win in Sydney this time last year.

With that said, it shouldn’t feel as experimental as it does. And yet it does.

Wallabies game plan tweaks: hopefully more than just soundbites
It was interesting to hear the Wallabies – skipper Stephen Moore and flyhalf Bernard Foley in particular – speaking of the need to tweak their playing approach, after their at-all-costs method in June saw them play right into England’s hands.

“Teams probably were able to defend our running game and our attacking game pretty easily last time we played, so we just want to keep that variation and keep challenging defences and also back-fields as well,” Foley said this week.

“Whenever we kick we want to do it with an attacking mindset, to get the ball back, we’re not going to be kicking for the sake of it or to improve the statistics. We want to kick with a desired outcome.”

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As Nick Bishop highlighted so well on Wednesday, the Wallabies’ kicking game in June lacked variety and any real punch, from which England were feasting by the third Test in Sydney.

England’s defensive speed put Foley under pressure especially, meaning that his already limited kicking length was further shortened.

We know New Zealand will kick; they kick more than most sides they play. But they kick with purpose and for results, which were both areas in which the Wallabies failed in June.

The Mick Byrne influence in these areas will be interesting to observe, if indeed there are any in the first outing since his appointment.

The variety is going to be the big pointer. The Wallabies can’t just be reliant on Foley as the chief kicker, and their approach to tactical kicking has to be such that the All Blacks’ defence is left uncertain. Genia, Nick Phipps, Giteau, Haylett-Petty, and even Matt Toomua all have kicking games that should be taken advantage of.

Enjoy the first Bledisloe. I can’t wait to find my short-legged sideline seat.

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