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28 Feb 2024, Edition - 3151, Wednesday

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Wallabies stick to winning formula as All Blacks axe stars for Bledisloe Cup decider



The Wallabies have kept their winning Bledisloe Cup line-up apart from one injury-forced change with lock Adam Coleman replacing Rory Arnold, while the All Blacks dumped star wingers Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane, along with centurion prop Owen Franks, in a sensational move ahead of Saturday’s Test in Auckland.

Australia coach Michael Cheika resisted making sweeping changes as he did in 2015 when the Wallabies were last within a win of regaining the coveted trans-Tasman trophy. Test-hardened second rower Coleman came off the bench during last week’s historic 47-26 win in Perth to replace Arnold, who had been one of Australia’s best before suffering a hand injury.

Rob Simmons is promoted as lock cover on a reserve bench that features three changes from Perth. Uncapped flanker Liam Wright replaces Luke Jones, with the return date for injured star David Pocock once again pushed back.

Test veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper replaces Tom Banks as outside back cover and will make his first Wallabies appearance of the year if called upon. It would be his 118th Test and extend his Australian record to 32 appearances against New Zealand. It is the second-most experienced bench in Wallabies history, boasting 474 combined caps.

Cheika has played down the nature of the lopsided Perth result, saying it merely earned the Wallabies a ticket to Auckland. Australia will return with the Bledisloe Cup if they can end their 33-year hex at Eden Park with a win or a draw. They have lost their last 22 Tests in New Zealand, dating back to 2002, the last year they owned the silverware.

In a potential changing of the guard five weeks out from the World Cup, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has introduced young flyers Sevu Reece and George Bridge to the wing for the winner-takes-all Test. Nepo Laulala claims Franks’ tighthead berth in one of five starting changes from the team humbled 47-26 by the Wallabies in Perth.

Two changes were forced. Veteran Sonny Bill Williams returns to the midfield following injury to Jack Goodhue, pushing Anton Lienert-Brown to outside centre, while fourth-choice lock Patrick Tuipulotu replaces the suspended Scott Barrett.

The axing from the 23 of Smith and Franks could potentially end the career of two great All Blacks, with both having signed European club contracts beyond the World Cup.

Smith, a 79-Test veteran who last week became the first 33-year-old to play an All Blacks Test on the wing, may struggle for a seat to Japan in a hotly-contested position. Franks is the seventh most capped All Black with 108 Tests and one of their greatest scrummagers but the two-time World Cup winner lacks the mobility that Hansen now demands of his props.

Ioane’s form is a pale shadow of 2017-18, resulting in the exclusion of a player who has scored 23 tries in 26 Tests. It leaves New Zealand with their least-experienced wing combination since Doug Howlett and Bruce Reihana started a Test against France in Marseilles 19 years ago.

Fiji-born Reece, 22, was the brightest light in Super Rugby this year, thrilling with his electric running on the way to a competition-high 15 tries in his rookie season for the champion Crusaders. His first and only Test was against Argentina last month. Crusaders teammate Bridge’s three caps have all come off the bench, including two tries on debut against Japan last year.

“We’ve got two young, exciting wingers that we need to see play,” Hansen said. “While Rico and Bender [Smith] are world-class players, we think these boys are capable of being world class players too. They’re very confident men, they believe in themselves. They’ve come off a really good season with the Crusaders in good form.”

Hansen has persisted with two other key out-of-position changes introduced this year, again naming Beauden Barrett at fullback and Ardie Savea on the blindside flank. He has urged more commitment if they are to deny Australia the Cup for a 17th straight year.

“We’ve got to put them under pressure and take away the confidence they’ve got from playing the way they did last week,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot of pride in the team. We’ve spoken a lot about the Bledisloe being the second most important trophy and now we get the opportunity to show that.”

Australia: Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete, James O’Connor, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (captain), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda, Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio. Reserves: Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Liam Wright, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Adam Ashley-Cooper.

New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read (captain), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nepo Laulala, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Jackson Hemopo, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, Jordie Barrett.

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