Sydney - With a new coach and a raft of new faces in the squad, Australia are looking to the element of surprise to get them over the not inconsiderable hurdle of back-to-back Tests against New Zealand with which they start the Rugby Championship.
Ewen McKenzie took over as coach after Robbie Deans fell on his sword in the wake of the test series defeat to the British and Irish Lions last month and the former test prop has been quick to put his own imprint on the squad.
McKenzie said he will encourage his team to play the “Australian way” with ball in hand but has otherwise kept his cards close to his chest ahead of the opener against the world champions in Sydney on Saturday.
“I'm not going to say how I'm going to coach them, I'm going to save that for the game,” he told reporters. “They're not going to know who we're going to pick and we'll have a better idea of how they're going to go than they will about us.
“We've hopefully got the element of surprise, which is good. I enjoy that situation.”
Although McKenzie has said he would not simply be replicating his work at the 2011 Super Rugby Queensland Reds, it would be a major surprise if he did not start Quade Cooper at flyhalf.
The mercurial playmaker was left out of the squad for the Lions series by Deans but McKenzie has consistently stood by him at the Reds.
Australian media reports, however, have suggested uncapped but in-form ACT Brumbies number 10 Matt Toomua may get the start with Cooper coming off the bench as an impact player.
Toomua is one of eight uncapped players in the squad and it would be no surprise if all of them got a run-out in the six Rugby Championship tests as McKenzie looks to build the depth that would allow for the consistency in performance.
“If you spend a bit of time looking across the positions, if you get a like for like player, if one's injured the other one's playing, you can still play the game pretty much the same way,” he told Reuters earlier this month.
Given the short time the new coach has had to put his side together, Cooper's well established combination with scrumhalf Will Genia should hold him in good stead and his ability to do something different has always set him apart for McKenzie.
Much of the starting team against the All Blacks should be recognisable from the Lions tests with the likes of loose forward Ben Mowen and inside centre Christian Leali'ifano having impressed as debutants in the series.
James O'Connor, who played at flyhalf in all three tests against the Lions, has been moved into the back three and could start at fullback with Kurtley Beale out for the season after shoulder surgery.
Michael Hooper and Liam Gill will continue to deputise for the injured David Pocock at openside flanker but the other two back row positions are more difficult to call.
Mowen will almost certainly start at either blindside flanker or number eight with the versatile Scott Fardy, another uncapped Brumbie, perhaps getting a chance to bring his abrasiveness to the test arena for the first time.
The omission of loosehead prop Benn Robinson from the squad means the Australians will have a new-look front row with McKenzie having the option of bringing uncapped Scott Sio into an all-Brumbies unit with hooker Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander.
James Slipper's ability to play on both sides of the front row have won him 37 caps, though, and with the experimental scrum laws taking the monster hit out of the equation, his mobility around the park could earn him the starting berth, even if he may be expected to scrummage for longer.
While McKenzie has only had a couple weeks to look at the talent at his disposal, he has coveted the job for a long time and has certainly not arrived in the post bereft of ideas.
“I like the strategies that he's put in place, you can see that he's thought about them for a very long time,” Mowen said on Wednesday.
“I'm sure he's been looking forward to a chance to get this position and over that time he's been adjusting his strategy in his head.
“As a whole, I've been genuinely impressed by him and we need to make sure we get this McKenzie era off on the right foot.” – Reuters