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Three engrossing Bledisloe micro-battles

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Three Bledisloe Cup micro-battles that are worth the price of admission alone

Both Michael Cheika and Steve Hansen sprung a few surprises when they named their teams for the first Bledisloe Cup fixture of the year.

In the Wallabies’ corner, Tolu Latu and James O’Connor have been handed starts despite not having much form to justify it.

The All Blacks’ major talking point was naming Ardie Savea in the 6 jersey. Many expected Savea to start – but at the back of the scrum, not on the blindside flank.

The more left-field choices, combined with the usual rivalry and aggression we expect from a Bledisloe Cup match, means there are plenty of exciting match-ups to savour in Perth this weekend.

Tolu Latu v Dane Coles

Tolu Latu was the heir apparent to the Wallabies’ 2 jersey as recently as last year. There would have been high hopes at the beginning of the Super Rugby season that Latu would prove his worth for the Waratahs and make his selection an easy one, despite only having 11 caps to his name.

Instead, Latu earned himself a six-week suspension early in the season for dangerous play. He then copped a fine and further suspension upon his return for drink driving. All in all, Latu is very lucky to have even made the squad.

Dane Coles is fairly lucky himself – but for completely different reasons. Coles was rocked by two concussions during 2017 that kept him out for most of the season. Last year, a torn ACL extended the stocky hooker’s time on the sidelines. Questions were fairly raised whether the 32-year old would ever take the field again – so the fact that Coles is still up with the best hookers on the international scene is a miracle in of itself.

Despite not finding himself on the wrong side of the law (either on and off the field), Coles does have a fiery temper. The two starting hookers could find themselves in each other’s faces throughout the game – and not just during the scrums.

Latu was given a yellow card in the most recent match between the two sides in Japan last year for shoving opposite Codie Taylor in the face – Cheika will be hopeful that his hooker doesn’t make the same mistakes this weekend.

Latu and Coles are both quick to rush to their teammate’s defences – and are quick to throw in a few choice sledges now and again – so don’t be surprised to see the two rakes involved in some on-field disputes. Tempers tend to flare in Bledisloe Cup matches and neither Latu nor Coles will shy away from any confrontation.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper and Isi Naisarani  v Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read

Michael Cheika has chosen to start the same three loose forwards against South Africa, Argentina and now New Zealand. The Wallabies coach has clearly identified these three men as the key trio heading into the World Cup, although David Pocock’s supposedly impending return could change that.

There’s been no such consistency in the All Blacks’ ranks this season, however. Sam Cane and Ardie Savea both started against Argentina, with Savea packing down at number 8. Against South Africa, neither player was used, with Matt Todd taking over on the openside and Kieran Read resuming his role at the back of the scrum. Many suspected that the three who have now been named for tonight’s fixture would start the match – but every expectation was that Read would shift to the blindside to allow the more dynamic Savea to take over at 8.

There are a number of interesting sub-plots to the loose forward battle that viewers will bear witness to tonight.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto offloads the ball to a waiting Samu Kerevi during the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship match with Argentina. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has been underwhelming for the Wallabies this season and may well be on borrowed time. Some of his better matches in 2018 were against the All Blacks, with the Auckland born loose forward playing the full 80 in both Rugby Championship games against NZ. With Pocock due to return as early as next week and Pete Samu also not far away, Salakaia-Loto will need to put in a strong shift this weekend to ensure he has a spot on the plane to Japan later this season.

The Wallabies have regularly used Michael Hooper and Pocock in tandem when both have been fit. This combination has given them great control over the breakdown and helped hand the Wallabies extra possessions of the ball. They’ll find themselves on the opposite side of the coin this weekend, however, with the All Blacks now employing two specialist openside flankers.

Whilst New Zealand can thrive on scraps of possession thanks to their attacking threats throughout the side, Australia are not so well equipped. Will the Wallabies find themselves putting greater numbers into the breakdown, thus leaving themselves open to wider attacks?

Although Savea and Read have been named at 6 and 8 respectively, comments from Hansen have indicated that the numbers on the jerseys can sometimes mean very little in terms of the roles expected of the loose forwards. Arguably, Savea’s greatest strength over his fellow loose forwards is his dynamism on attack – an attribute that could be expertly used from the back of the scrum. Don’t be surprised to see Savea packing down at 8 when the All Blacks need to chew up some metres, despite the 6 he’ll be wearing.

Continue reading below…

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Samu Kerevi and James O’Connor v Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue

Fans will be treated to new midfield combinations on both sides of the park this evening.

Samu Kerevi was the Reds’ MVP of the season this year and carried the Queenslanders on his shoulders. There’s arguably no player more deserving of their spot in the Wallabies lineup than Kerevi. O’Connor, on the other hand, is making his first start since returning to Australia, having spent the last four years in the international wilderness.

Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue may well be New Zealand fans’ favourite midfield combination for the All Blacks. Typically, only one of the two have been utilised on the field for New Zealand at any one time, but that’s about to change.

The first thing to address is probably that O’Connor and Lienert-Brown are both somewhat ‘out of position’.

O’Connor has never started a match for the Wallabies in the 13 jersey, instead lining up at first five, inside centre, full back or on the wing. During his time at Sale, however, O’Connor regularly lined up at 13 and has all the skills needed to play there.

Lienert-Brown has been used primarily at outside centre for the All Blacks and will start just his fourth match at 12 this weekend. Despite that, Lienert-Brown has ample experience in both midfield roles at Super Rugby level and will not come up short in any areas of play.

The Wallabies combination is reminiscent of other successful midfield pairings. The combos of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, and Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw all use a hard-hitting, bulldozer at 12 with a distributor and organiser at 13. It would be unfair to say that Kerevi doesn’t possess skills outside being an excellent ball carrier – but he’ll certainly be tasked with crashing the ball into the opposition defence more than O’Connor will.

Lienert-Brown and Goodhue, meanwhile, play a more similar style to one another than their Australian rivals. Lienert-Brown’s point of difference is his quick-stepping and offloading. If the Wallabies can’t prevent Lienert-Brown from getting his hands free then there could be a number of midfield breaks on offer for the All Blacks. Goodhue is exceptionally balanced – there are really very few weaknesses to his game.

The test match likely won’t be won or lost in the midfield, but with both sides trialling new combinations, there could be a bit of confusion early in the game. Whichever sides better takes advantage of that confusion could build a handy lead.

Across the field

Bledisloe Cup matches are always worth savouring, even if the results have been fairly one-sided in recent times.

All across the pitch there are plenty of head-to-heads worth keeping an eye on, beyond the above.

How will Rieko Ioane fare against the Wallabies after his worst performance in an All Blacks jersey to date? Could we see his wing peppered with high balls from Nic White, and how will he perform in the air with Reece Hodge lining up opposite?

Scott Barrett is making his first appearance for the year and will form an imposing second row with Sam Whitelock. Will the relatively inexperienced duo of Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold be able to cope with the Crusaders combo at the lineout, or will Australia have to survive on bread crumbs?

Finally, both sides will be fielding dual playmakers at 10 and 15, with Christian Lealiifano and Kurtley Beale running out for Australia and Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett steering the ship for New Zealand. Neither team has had very commanding kicking games in recent times – the winner of this duel could end up controlling the play and ultimately controlling the game.

Get set, because tonight’s match is going to be a cracker.

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Three Bledisloe Cup micro-battles that are worth the price of admission alone