David Pocock
David Pocock

The Wallabies are to pit David Pocock and Michael Hooper against All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw as the Rugby Championship comes down to an all-or-nothing showdown in Sydney on Saturday. 

The selection of Pocock and Hooper in tandem underscores the desire of Australian coach Michael Cheika to have the battle at the breakdown decide the outcome. 

It will be the first time the dynamic Australian loose forwards have started together with Cheika putting their combined scavenging skills up against the legendary McCaw. 

The Wallabies and All Blacks go into their final-round clash as the only unbeaten sides in the southern hemisphere championship that also features South Africa and Argentina. 

The last time Australia beat New Zealand was in 2011, in what was then the Tri-Nations tournament decider, with New Zealand going on to win the World Cup two months later.

The World Cup again looms over this clash with both sides completing preparations before the global tournament starts in England in mid-September. 

Also at stake is the Bledisloe Cup, contested annually between the trans-Tasman rivals with the All Blacks winning or retaining the trophy every year since it was last held by Australia in 2002. 

Tensions will be high in Sydney, with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen saying he expects a “brutal contest” and long-serving New Zealand centre Conrad Smith rating Australia as the team his side “love to hate”.

Cheika’s decision to include Hooper at seven with Pocock at number eight, as well as promoting Dean Mumm to start at lock ahead of Will Skelton puts the focus firmly on the breakdown, as Hansen expected. 

“This means we will need to bring physicality, intensity and accuracy to the occasion,” he said with Jerome Kaino recalled to join McCaw and Kieran Read as the loose trio and hard-nosed Luke Romano starting at lock with Brodie Retallick.

– More aggression –

Australian scrum-half Nick Phipps said Hansen was right to expect more aggression from the Wallabies. 

“That’s something we want as part of our identity… not taking a backward step, that’s leading in the physicality stakes. We want to try and put in those efforts that stops the momentum of teams,” he said.

With Hooper and Pocock on the park at the same time, the All Blacks will be forced into more urgency with their ball protection and speed of delivery if they are to make the most of their outside backs. 

Nehe Milner-Skudder, one of the stars of Super rugby this year, makes his Test debut on the right wing, forming a potent back-three partnership with Julian Savea and Ben Smith.

They are among five changes to the New Zealand backline which also sees Dan Carter return to steer the ship at fly-half with Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre confronting Matt Giteau who replaces Matt Toomua in the Wallabies line-up. 

Drew Mitchell, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau form the Australian back three with Kurtley Beale, Toomua and Nic White on the bench and no room in the line-up for Quade Cooper.

Cheika may have home-ground advantage but he is in no doubt the favourites are the All Blacks who have only lost two Tests — to South Africa and England — of 45 played since winning the last World Cup.

“I think the expectation is probably not for us to win, so that’s what an underdog is,” Cheika said.

“I don’t think we need it, but it is what it is and we have to prove that wrong.”

In the last clash between the All Blacks and Wallabies, in Brisbane last October, New Zealand won 29-28 with a converted try in injury time. – Agence France-Presse

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