SYDNEY – All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock will play his milestone 100th Test on Saturday as New Zealand stick with their strongest possible unit to play a confident Australia in Sydney.
Whitelock becomes only the eighth All Black to achieve the milestone, and does so with the world champions under pressure to defend a remarkable run over their neighbours.
At stake in the opening Rugby Championship clash of the season is the first round of the Bledisloe Cup, a trophy contested annually between New Zealand and Australia which the All Blacks have held since 2003.
Australia are buoyed by beating the All Blacks the last time they met, and although they lost the 2017 series 2-1, fly-half Bernard Foley showed their underlying boldness this week by saying they have set a target of keeping the All Blacks scoreless.
Such confidence dictated to the All Blacks that there was no room to experiment this weekend.
Coach Steve Hansen has not been swayed by calls to start developing multiple combinations ahead of next year's World Cup, and particularly to use rising fly-half star Richie Mo'unga.
"The Bledisloe means a lot to this team and we have the opportunity to show just how much on Saturday night," Hansen said when naming his best-available side on Thursday.
Jack Goodhue has overtaken Anton Lienert-Brown at outside centre, otherwise the back line was predictable with Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane filling the back three.
With Sonny Bill Williams not available, Ryan Crotty is at inside centre with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith in the halves and starting their 26th Test together.
Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick, who missed the series against France in June, return to the side with Read resuming the captaincy.
Liam Squire and Sam Cane are on the flanks with an all-Crusaders front row of Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Joe Moody.
Hansen, who described Whitelock's record as a "remarkable feat", refused to dwell on New Zealand's long run holding the Bledisloe Cup, saying the All Blacks mindset was to start each year as a new event.
"We know that we have to earn the right to perform by preparing well and taking each moment that arises, and that mindset has been reflected in our preparation this week, which has been very good," he said. "As far as we're concerned, neither team currently has possession of the Cup and if we want it, we've got to front up and take it."
New Zealand's overall record from 161 Tests against Australia is 111 wins, 43 losses and seven draws.
The New Zealand side (15-1) is:
Ben Smith; Waisake Naholo, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (capt), Sam Cane, Liam Squire; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)