Game one of the Rugby Championship sees trans-Tasman rivals Australia host New Zealand in what doubles as a Bledisloe Cup test. Here are three match ups that will be worth watching on Saturday.
Match Up One: The Tall Timber
The All Blacks locking duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retalick is one of the most formidable in the modern area of rugby. This Saturday will see the pair start a test match for the 44th time together. Their combination is successful due to the balance of doing their core positional roles well. This combined with their ability to act as ball distributors, make strong ball carries and play at a high intensity for 80 minutes means they are an essential part to the All Blacks.
The Wallabies will be looking to match the All Blacks with two big but inexperienced second row forwards. Rory Arnold (2.08 metres, 120 kilograms) and Adam Coleman (2.04 metres, 122 kilograms) are two men that can give the Australian forward pack some much-needed sting. This test will be both their 13th international. Both have the ability to get their long bodies into the middle of mauls and disrupt play. This will help slow any quick ball the All Blacks need to launch their attack. Using their large frames well will help the Wallabies gain front foot ball. Both are strong ball carriers that will need to be effective on Saturday.
Match Up Two: Contrasting Fullbacks
Israel Folau and Damian McKenzie are complete opposites in terms of stature. Folau at 1.93 metres and 103 kilograms is built like a loose forward. He is one of Australia’s most potent attacking weapons with size, strength and timing into the back line to challenge defenders. He will need to be heavily involved if the Wallabies are to win on Saturday.
McKenzie will be looking to bring his Super Rugby form into a test match environment. This will be his biggest test to date. At 1.75 metres McKenzie will be one of the smallest players on the field. Australia will need to test him out early with some high kicks to see whether he is confident on the big stage. Folau’s great aerial skills will be a key to unsettling McKenzie. Small in stature McKenzie is one of the most courageous rugby players in the world. He will counter attack, act as a second play maker and link with Beauden Barrett to stretch the Wallabies defence.
Match Up Three: The Returning Inside Centres
Kurtley Beale returns to the Wallabies for his first test since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. Beale will be a key man in attacking the All Blacks defensive patterns with his creativity and ability to spot a gap. His familiar combination with Bernard Foley will give him the confidence to fit right back into the big arena. A free running Beale will help contribute to a classic test battle.
Sonny Bill Williams returns after a four match suspension for his shoulder charge on Anthony Watson. SBW will want to prove many critics wrong that he still deserves to be an All Black. He is familiar with ANZ Stadium from his rugby league days. Williams will look to get his off load game going by attracting multiple defenders and freeing up passes to players running off him. The Wallabies should test out early on defence to see if he has improved his tackle technique and is ready to return to international rugby.
Whoever has the edge in these battles will help decide the opening match of the Rugby Championship.
Carlin Crossan, Pundit Arena