The secret’s out about what the Wallabies think about the current All Blacks pack – not that it was particularly hidden last week when prop Allan Alaalatoa talked about a desire to “dominate” them at scrum time.
Dave Rennie’s team for Bledisloe II is loaded up with size, with Fraser McReight moved off the bench to make way for No.8 Harry Wilson.
With Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Jordan Uelese and Taniela Tupou already on the bench, this is the Australian version of the Springboks’ vaunted ‘Bomb Squad’, although Rennie has resisted the temptation to go for the full 6-2 split.
The Wallabies see an opportunity up front. It’s hardly a provocative statement. In fact, they are simply trying to join the queue of teams who have had success against the All Blacks in the past five years with a similar formula.
This has set the scene for fireworks on Saturday, and although the crowd is expected to be much smaller than Bledisloe I last week – be prepared for the strange sight of thousands of empty seats – from a spectator’s point of view this could be far the better Test.
The stakes are high not just because the Bledisloe Cup is on the line, but the losing pack will limp away with the brutal realisation that the superiority they thought they carried into the Test was a cruel illusion.
Both forward packs head into Saturday’s second Test believing they have the upper hand up front.Credit:Getty
This is why it’s called Test rugby, and why Super Rugby is a distant cousin to this form of the game.
But to get the outcome they want, the Wallabies need four men to deliver.
Lachie Swinton v Akira Ioane
Hyped as ‘the Hitman’ on the Wallabies social media channels, with a flatteringly edited video that suggested he already has half the All Blacks pack in his pocket.
That won’t have escaped the attention of the All Blacks, as modern players inhabit these platforms and frequently tap into them for a source of motivation.
Swinton certainly has an edge to him, and there’s no doubt that he can rock blokes with his tackling technique.
If the Waratahs No.6 has a big game, the Wallabies will go well, but don’t expect Ioane to spend too much time on the wing throwing loose offloads as he did last week.
Rob Valetini v Ardie Savea
The big Brumbies back-rower beat Savea in their personal duel when the Brumbies beat the Hurricanes in Super Rugby Trans Tasman – that’s just a fact.
While Valetini wasn’t perfect that night in terms of his carry accuracy, his size and ability to get over the gainline did raise the old question about whether Savea has the bulk needed at the back of the scrum.
Rob Valetini (right) got the chocolates against Ardie Savea in Super Rugby Trans Tasman earlier this year.Credit:Getty
Expect Valetini to line up in the midfield during Wallabies lineouts, as he did during that night in Canberra, and test the All Blacks’ front-on tackling,
The question mark is whether the Wallabies can handle Savea in tight, where his angry carries are exceptionally difficult to stop.
Taniela Tupou v Karl Tu’inukuafe
The Tongan Thor was ordinary last week, and conceded an important penalty to the All Blacks’ loosehead in that crucial third quarter. The All Blacks clearly think that Tu’inukuafe has Tupou’s number at scrum time, and that his overall impact falls away sharply if he can’t get the psychological boost of dominating at the set-piece. This is a big game for Tupou. This is where reputations are really made.
Matt Philip v Brodie Retallick
The Rebels lineout nerd will add to the IQ at set-piece time, but he’ll also need to be the big dog with ball in hand with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto on the bench. Philip was a great carrier last year – definitely where his game improved the most – but if we are being critical he hasn’t quite provided that same punch since his return from France.
Retallick was a bit wild last week – a penalty magnet – but he doesn’t look too far off a statement game.
These are the contests that will decide the game. Test rugby has a timeless ability to strip the game back to its absolute fundamentals, and both sets of coaches would have spent time this week trying to get rid of the ‘Super Rugby’ habits that defined at least half of last week’s so-so Test.
For mine, this year’s Test season truly begins at Eden Park on Saturday.
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