All Blacks squad named for Sydney Test

On Saturday August 20, The Rugby Championship begins. The annual competition between SANZAAR partners South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina generate plenty of interest worldwide. In readiness for that important initial clash next Saturday, an All Blacks squad travels across the Tasman to continue a battle with their closest rivals.

This first match will see the Wallabies (Aus) look to defend their title. Won during a shortened competition last year that was due to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. In that year, the Australian side defeated the visiting All Blacks at the same venue 27-19. ANZ Stadium has provided the Wallabies with several key scalps over their eastern neighbours. This Saturday will be a vital test in 2016.

Opening challenge for New Zealand All Blacks

In 2016, the onus must be on the All Blacks to reaffirm their status as World Champions. The recent Welsh series had a challenging first game before they ran away with a clean sweep. More pressure should be expected over The Rugby Championship (TRC). If anyone can put pressure on their number one world ranking, it would be Michael Cheika. An enigmatic figure, he would have developed key strategies to overturn all three International opponents.

Cheika will use every tool in his bag, including ‘numbers’. His side now have superior experience in test caps; with the six retirements from the All Blacks 2015 side. How they turn that ‘numerical advantage’ into a victory is another question entirely. Having players with over 100 test caps means nothing, if their last test was a loss to England. While all that might have been forgotten by now, Australian Super Rugby sides only had one team in the semi finals. They have been idle while others have played on and claimed the title [the Hurricanes].

That factor will not be lost on either the All Blacks or Springboks (South Africa). Some Aussie players will not have laced up their boots in anger since July–even a trial match against the Sydney Roosters rugby league team would not improve that poor statistic. Jumping into a test match is a huge step. They might be off the rhythm, while the All Blacks transition more easily.

Busy Schedule

This August 20 match begins a busy schedule for all four sides. On the same night that Australia play NZ, South Africa play Argentina. A busy few weeks then transpire as the sides move across continents/across the Tasman, to establish either a superiority over the opposition, or a need to revisit their plans. A win for either the Wallabes or Los Pumas (Argentina) first-up will change the landscape. Wins for the more favoured teams might just reinforce the predictions–All Blacks primarily must win in Africa, to claim the TRC is the common thinking.

After the first two home-and-away matches, there is a short break before Argentina visit both NZ and Australia on consecutive weeks. The Springboks play the reverse; Wallabies first, then All Blacks.

There is then a fortnights rest, before the two Pacific sides make dual trips to Africa (Aus) and South America (NZ) before crossing paths ‘mid air’ to play the opposite sides. By that time, the All Blacks should be in either a dominant position [at the top of the table] or will be fighting for the title.

In terms of results, South Africa look more likely be the first to slip on the banana skin than New Zealand. Though, head coach Steve Hansen has spoken many times of ‘that loss’ which maybe approaching.

A wily-veteran, he often sidesteps media by changing the focus. In general, coaches don’t discuss losing. Expect Hansen to joke about it, rather than focus on any potential outcome or favoritism for the TRC. Famous for one-liners that bring a smile, staying positive is a real key to his success.

Might New Zealand suffer a loss in 2016 TRC?

‘It is bound to happen’ some say. Others think the fear of losing is the greatest motivating factor in NZ Rugby. That is true, no team likes to lose. Only occurring on two occasions recently, not many sides can maintain such records forever. On home soil though, it feels like a lifetime since any team has challenged the All Blacks.

That last home field loss to South Africa was way back in 2009, and it proceeds a sequence of 40 plus victories in a row. Unheralded and very much one of the highest achievements in professional rugby. So with losses in Australia and South Africa ring-fenced by consecutive World Cups, a Hansen might very well be smiling come October.

A TRC match is probably the highest level of competition, before the side travels up to the Northern Hemisphere in November/December. That fear of losing may not be key in All Blacks forethought though. Complacency is–Hansen, Stu Foster and Grant Fox need to select men who will fight hard to preserve that intensity. If they are behind on the scoreboard, they must be sure they have the men in place to overcome that.

Losing may seem as likely for this side, as it is for champion NZ rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray. Their twin records mirror success on an International stage. Expect the men in black to carry gold again, like the reigning Olympic champions.

But it is a test match, and there can only be one winner. Two teams run onto the field, and while it is not inconceivable, it would be a surprise.

All Blacks in red hot form

The All Blacks squad have men who performed in prolonged periods. Beauden Barrett is at the peak of his powers, as is Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith and Wyatt Crockett. Most players have been at their peak in fitness, all ready to make the step up to International rugby.

The All Blacks warmed up on Friday night by opposing two ITM Cup sides. One was beaten 73-0. That was not ideal, but the Counties-Manukau side pushed them harder and the team who flies into Sydney will not be rusty. That is the key–match ready. Can the Australians say that?

The only concern maybe that Blues players haven’t had that intense rugby and hooker Dane Coles has an injury concern. So do Sam Cane and Joe Moody, but precautions have been made in the squad selected. For mine, the one man who is needing to respond is Julian Savea.

Savea needs to perform

If selected for Sydney, his season; if not his All Blacks career, will be defined by the next match. Perform, and he and the All Blacks will have a happy trip back to New Zealand.

Lose and the pressure mounts up on Savea. The management maybe prepared for it, but fans and commentators will be very surprised if the result goes against the Kiwis. And if Savea ‘bounces back’ and has a blinder, then that will be a bonus–for the All Blacks, as much as for the big wingers career longterm.

All Blacks Squad Named

Forwards: Dane Coles, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks, Kane Hames, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Samuel Whitelock, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire and Matt Todd.
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Moala, Israel Dagg, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
Note: Forward Kane Hames and loose forward Matt Todd have been named as cover for Joe Moody and Sam Cane respectively.
The team for August 20 will be named on Thursday.
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LWOS reporting from Sydney

Last Word On Sports will be on hand in Sydney to report on the August 20 match. While confidence will be high, a black shirt worn proudly and a high sense of an expectation, this reporter knows that ‘rugby is a game’. So come test-match Saturday, look forward to a full match report and post match comments first hand from ANZ Stadium; thanks to Australian Rugby Union.

“Main photo credit”