The three biggest match ups of the first Bledisloe Cup clash of 2021
The next instalment of the Bledisloe Cup will get underway on Saturday night as the All Blacks and Wallabies do battle at Eden Park for the first time in 2021.
The New Zealanders go in as heavy favourites against their trans-Tasman rivals for a multitude of reasons as the Australians aim to end a 19-year Bledisloe Cup drought and a 35-year hoodoo at Eden Park.
Dave Rennie’s men won’t go down without a fight, though, and, as they showed in Wellington last year, the Wallabies will back themselves to provide a first-up shock in the year’s opening Bledisloe Cup encounter.
With that in mind, here are three of the biggest match ups that could be key in determining which side gets the upper-hand in the 2021 series.
Aaron Smith vs Tate McDermott
The master vs the apprentice.
On one side, there’s Aaron Smith, long-regarded as planet’s finest halfback who is set to notch his 100th test appearance in this match.
Rennie was outspoken in his verdict throughout last month’s test series against France that the 22-year-old needs to improve on his core roles as a halfback to become a regular starter at test level.
Few halfbacks pose the same kind of threat that McDermott can with ball in hand, though, as the Reds have found out over the past few seasons, and it could be that attacking ability that could prove to be valuable for Australia.
By contrast, the core roles of a halfback are the key strengths of Smith’s game as his world-class distribution and extraordinarily high work rate have propelled him to a century of test caps.
Everyone knows how good Smith is and can be, so expect sparks to fly between these two as they try to get one over each other.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 6, 2021
Dalton Papalii vs Michael Hooper
The master vs the apprentice 2.0.
As is the case between Smith and McDermott at halfback, the New Zealand and Australian openside flankers contrast vastly in terms of experience, but are both supremely good players.
A robust player, Papalii will look to utilise his uncompromising style of play to full effect against a Wallabies side that promises to front up physically after missing the last two tests against Fiji due to a minor calf injury.
Marking him is 108-test star and Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who returns to Kiwi shores for the first time since last year after skipping the Super Rugby season to take up a sabbatical deal in Japan.
Often having to front the media as the losing captain, Hooper will be hoping to change that this weekend, but the 29-year-old has a difficult task of doing so with Papalii standing as his opposite.
A renowned attacking threat in open play and a machine over the ball at the breakdown, Hooper will need to call on all his talent and experience if he is to get one over Papalii and the All Blacks.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 7, 2021
Rieko Ioane vs Jordan Petaia
After playing predominantly as a midfielder throughout Super Rugby and the July test series, All Blacks boss Ian Foster has pushed Rieko Ioane back onto the left wing, where he has spent the majority of his test career.
The tactical shift comes after Ioane produced his best performance of the July series in a cameo appearance on the wing during the 60-13 victory over Fiji in Hamilton on July 17.
Coming off the bench in place of the injured Will Jordan, Ioane looked dangerous whenever he received the ball as he bagged a try and put others into space in an energetic display that Foster will hope he can replicate against the Wallabies.
Marking Ioane is Wallabies youngster Jordan Petaia, the 21-year-old utility back who missed last month’s test series win over France as a result of a quadricep injury.
However, like his Reds teammate McDermott, Petaia is among Australia’s brightest young talents, as reflected by his selection in the 2019 World Cup squad as a teenager despite having never played test rugby.
In last year’s 43-5 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in Sydney, Petaia was one of Australia’s best players on the park in a dire outing for the Wallabies, and he is likely to be heavily relied on again if the Aussies are to clinch an unlikely victory.
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