SYDNEY - Amid speculation that Beauden Barrett's place in the All Blacks side could be under threat, the flyhalf will find himself under increased scrutiny on Saturday when they face Australia in the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney.
While Barrett had a below-par season with the Wellington Hurricanes, Richie Mo'unga was in superb form for the Canterbury Crusaders as they won their ninth Super Rugby title. Mo'unga's performances sparked debate in New Zealand as to whether he should replace Barrett for Saturday's match (kickoff 1005 GMT), but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has kept faith with the two-times world player of the year.
Mo'unga did not even make it to the bench for the test which also doubles as the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup series. While Hansen has been able to name arguably his strongest side, he was forced to make a late change after replacement prop Ofa Tuungafasi was ruled out with a rib injury and Tim Perry moved on to the bench. Captain Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick return after not having played for the world champions since last year and add increased physicality to the pack.
"It's exciting having someone of Kieran's ability in the lineout, his ball-carrying strength, and under pressure he's been there and done that," said Hansen. "It's a massive asset to have him, and you can chuck Guzzler (Retallick) in there as well, and probably Sam Cane who didn't have a big French series. Those three guys give us a little more starch."
That "starch" should test Michael Cheika's Wallabies, who struggled in the forwards against Six Nations champions Ireland in June and were starved of ball in the 2-1 series loss. They will need to at least match the world champions in the forwards if they are to have any hope of wresting back the Bledisloe Cup from the All Blacks, who have held the symbol of trans-Tasman rugby supremacy since 2003.
Cheika's team will also need to avoid the same kind of slow starts that have seen the All Blacks quickly disappear over the horizon over the last two years. The All Blacks raced to a 32-3 lead by halftime in 2016 before winning 42-8, while last year they were leading 54-6 after 48 minutes before the Wallabies regrouped and reduced the deficit to 54-34.
Cheika thinks those slow starts could be attributed to rust as most of his side played no part in the Super Rugby playoffs thanks to Australian teams' struggles in the competition. To counter that this time around, the Wallabies coach organised a warmup match two weeks ago.
While he has a superb attacking axis in Will Genia, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, his biggest concern in the backs heading into the southern hemisphere competition, which also includes Argentina and South Africa, is at centre.
With Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kirdrani both injured, Cheika has turned to utility back Reece Hodge to shut down the All Blacks midfield. Hodge, who mostly played flyhalf for the Melbourne Rebels this season, should add to the Wallabies' playmaking but how he organises the defence will be his biggest challenge. Especially if Barrett plays to his potential.