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'They may even gain a little bit': NZ's take on changes to injury-hit Wallabies

By Tom Vinicombe
Bernard Foley. (Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

While the All Blacks may have made three key changes to their forwards for the first Bledisloe Cup match of the season, shifting Scott Barrett to the blindside flank and bringing in Brodie Retallick and Hoskins Sotutu, the Wallabies have gone one better and rotated in seven new players to their starting line-up.

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Dave Porecki, Rob Leota, Pete Samu, Jake Gordon, Bernard Foley, Lalakai Foketi and Andrew Kellaway have all joined the run-on side for Thursday’s match, with some changes forced by injury and some a product of form. One way or another, however, the All Blacks will face a vastly different Wallabies side to the one that was bested by the Springboks in Sydney earlier this month.

It’s the recall of former Test flyhalf Foley that’s probably raised the most eyebrows around rugby circles, with the 33-year-old recently linking up with the side following an injury to Quade Cooper and the dropping of James O’Connor. With Noah Lolesio now ruled out of action after suffering a head knock and O’Connor also unavailable to play, Foley has been thrust in the No 10 jersey and will make his first appearance in gold since the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

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Speaking to media after naming his side for the Bledisloe clash, All Blacks coach Ian Foster suggested that while the Wallabies might have been running out of flyhalf options to call upon, bringing in Foley could, in fact, be a positive for the Wallabies.

“Obviously their hand’s been forced with that [change],” Foster said. “I haven’t seen their full team but I’ve heard that one.

“He’s a really good organiser – probably more an organising 10, very astutue, very experienced test match player and he’s played with a lot of their players for a long, long time so I don’t see it as being a major change for them. And he’ll probably bring a bit of enthusiasm and love the chance to put his hand up to get back into that group.

“I certainly don’t think they’ll lose anything and they may even gain a little bit.”

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Two changes to the loose forward trio also give an indication to the way the Wallabies may look to take on the All Blacks up front, with ball-runners Samu and Leota coming in for Jed Holloway and Fraser McReight.

With Rob Valetini the only loose holding his spot from last week, it presents an interesting challenge for his NZ opposition Hoskins Sotutu, who will be making his first Test appearance of the season on Thursday.

“He’s a big, strong ball carrier,” Sotutu said of the man he’s be lining up against. “I’ve played against him a few times now. [To get an advantage you have] just got to try and match them physically and get stuck in early.

“I think Pete’s quite an exciting loose forward as well. He’s good around the breakdown and he’s a really good attacker for them as well. Them having those three ball carriers around the loosies is probably somewhere they’re going to try go to.”

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Senior All Blacks second rower Brodie Retallick, who will make his return to the run-on side on Thursday for the first time since July, suggested that the Wallabies will try to use said loose forwards to build some ascendency early in the piece.

“From my point of view as a forward, they play very similar rugby to the Brumbies,” he said. “They’re set-piece orientated around their maul and their scrum, which they’ve had great reward at times around. That’s obviously a real area for us to focus on.

“They’ve got exciting backs – especially their outsides and their wingers. And when they get the opportunity, especially to pick through the ruck and stuff like that, we’ve seen how dangerous they are. If they get the platform up front from their forward pack, it allows their backs to play.

Foster himself suggested that the Wallabies’ ‘run and run’ style of play wasn’t hugely dissimilar to how the All Blacks are trying to operate at present.

“I think we both like to play at that sort of tempo, really, and so both teams will do whatever they can to stop it because we’ve seen if they get front foot ball, they’ve certainly beefed up some of their ball-carry options and [the strategy is] all designed to get in behind you and get speed of ball and start to exploit that short side and get their 9s moving at you.

“In some ways, the game doesn’t change a lot from Argentina where you’re really going to have to control that gain line and control that tackle point. So we kind of know their game and it’s because it looks a little bit similar to ours at times.”

With dynamic ball-carriers in the forwards and an experienced kicking option in the form of Bernard Foley, the All Blacks will certainly have to be at their tactical best on Thursday night to counter the threat of the hurting Wallabies.

The trans-Tasman rivals will both be gunning for a victory that will take them one step closer to Rugby Championship – and Bledisloe Cup – glory.

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