Wallabies banking on BealeComment on this story
Sydney - Australia's 2014 Rugby Championship will again be defined by their opening two matches, home and away Tests against their fiercest rivals, world champions New Zealand.
Win at least one of those matches and the confidence they bring into the competition from a seven-game winning streak and an outstanding year for Australian teams in Super Rugby could blossom into something more tangible.
Lose them both, as they did in coach Ewen McKenzie's maiden campaign last year, and it will be back to the drawing board for the Wallabies with the World Cup a little more than a year away.
McKenzie knows he needs to bring something different to the table to threaten the All Blacks and he rolled the dice with his first matchday squad by installing utility back Kurtley Beale at flyhalf for Saturday's opener.
It was a calculated gamble that bucked form in the strictest positional sense - incumbent Bernard Foley had led the line ably in the three-test sweep of France in June and was a key factor in New South Wales Waratahs' Super Rugby triumph.
But Beale, who has played at inside centre for the Waratahs this season, alternating in the role of first receiver with Foley, offers McKenzie that indefinable quality that coaches yearn for in their big players, the “X factor”.
A potential weak link in defence, Beale will be expected to work with Matt Toomua outside him to bring the best out of a backline that includes one of the most lethal weapons in world rugby, fullback Israel Folau.
Folau's 13 tries in his first 18 tests make him one of the first names on the Australia team sheet and halfway through the championship, he is likely to be joined in the backfield by the exciting winger Henry Speight.
The tackle-busting Fijian was named in the squad pending his qualification for Australia on residency grounds on Sept. 11 and could have recovered from a hamstring injury in time to take his place in the side to face Argentina two days later.
The keenness to get Speight involved reflected a shortage of experienced wingers after James O'Connor left for Europe under a cloud last year and Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins announced he was heading to Japan.
That made the selection of the versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper at outside centre something of a surprise but Tevita Kuridrani's quality means he will surely play a major midfield role in the campaign even if it is off the bench initially.
Nic White will start at scrumhalf but can expect to be pushed all the way by Waratahs halfback Nick Phipps, one of the most-improved Australian players over the last year, with the injured Will Genia a possibility for a call-up towards the end of the campaign.
With Quade Cooper also sidelined by injury and James Horwill left out of the matchday squad for Saturday's opener in Sydney, the influence of the Queensland Reds side that won the Super Rugby title under McKenzie in 2011 is greatly diminished.
Lock Horwill may yet return but the two players that followed him as Wallabies skipper, France-bound number eight Ben Mowen and injured hooker Stephen Moore, are not available.
The further loss of Tatafu Polota-Nau, whose knee injury will be re-assessed for the second New Zealand test next week, is a blow and not just because it leaves the mobile but inexperienced Nathan Charles starting in the middle of the front row.
Hooker Polota-Nau, rejuvenated number eight Wycliff Palu and young lock Will Skelton's ability to do the hard yards with ball in hand for the Waratahs and Australia were one area where the Wallabies could point to distinct improvement this year.
The trio also contributed to a marked step up in physicality, a quality that will be vital at the breakdown against South Africa and Argentina, not to mention the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday and Auckland a week later.
Captain Michael Hooper's incredible work rate means he will more often than not be the busiest in the tackle area from the openside flank, while Scott Fardy and Ben McCalman will bring more grit to the back row.
Australia know they must at least be competitive at the set piece and what lock Rob Simmons perhaps lacks in “mongrel”, he brings in organisation at the line-out.
McKenzie is resigned to the fact the front row will always be considered Australia's soft underbelly and even if he believes they are unfairly maligned, he will still be happy with as few set scrums as possible over the next eight weeks. – Reuters