With less than 11 months to go before New Zealand take on South Africa in what should be a block-busting start to the Pool B schedule at Rugby World Cup 2019, Yokohama’s rugby fans will get an early taste of what to expect from the All Blacks this weekend as the world champions take on Australia at the International Stadium.
While New Zealand have already retained the Bledisloe Cup for a 16th consecutive year after winning 38-13 in Sydney and 40-12 in Auckland on successive weekends in August, Saturday’s match in Japan’s second largest city, at the venue where the RWC 2019 final will also be held, is still an important marker in the build-up to next year’s tournament as well as preparing the teams for their upcoming tours to Europe.
For Australia, valuable rating points are also on the line with a positive result guaranteed to lift them away from their current all-time low of seventh in the World Rugby Rankings.
OPINION | With just under a year until the @rugbyworldcup, former #AllBlacks first-five @DanCarter believes the best is still yet to come for our All Blacks. 👊🏉— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) October 25, 2018
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We take a look at the possible permutations from this match and the five fixtures being played in the Rugby Europe International Championship.
NEW ZEALAND (1) V AUSTRALIA (7)
New Zealand name three test centurions in captain Kieran Read and fellow forwards Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock, while centre Sonny Bill Williams (pictured) reaches the 50-cap milestone, almost eight years on from his debut against England. The squad also features the return of several key players from injury. Joe Moody is restored to the loose-head position following a thumb injury and is joined in the starting XV by flankers Liam Squire and Ardie Savea, while prop Nepo Laulala and Brodie Retallick are named on the bench.
In other changes from New Zealand's last outing against South Africa, TJ Perenara will start at scrum-half with Aaron Smith providing impact from the bench, while Ben Smith moves to the right wing to make way for Damian McKenzie at full-back.
Australia coach Michael Cheika has named Israel Folau at outside-centre in place of the injured Reece Hodge. Hodge’s ankle injury has forced a reshuffle to the Wallabies backline with Sefa Naivalu named on the wing for his first test since playing Italy at Suncorp Stadium in June last year. Naivalu will be looking to add to his remarkable strike rate for the Wallabies, with four tries in seven tests despite featuring predominantly off the bench. In the pack, Rob Simmons will start in the second-row alongside Izack Rodda after a sore groin forced Adam Coleman to miss out.
Meanwhile, veteran Sekope Kepu is in line to become the first Wallaby prop to play 100 tests after being named on the bench. Kepu is joined there by back-row Jack Dempsey, who hasn’t featured at test level since the third Bledisloe Cup fixture last year because of a hamstring injury. Samu Kerevi is also set to make his return after nearly four months out with a bicep injury.
- The All Blacks and Australia have played 187 tests since 1903, with 131 wins to the All Blacks, 49 to Australia and seven draws
- New Zealand need to score 39 points to break the record for most points scored in a Bledisloe Cup series. The current record stands at 116, in 2010, and that was across four tests not three
- Beauden Barrett requires 12 points to become the highest points-scorer in a Bledisloe Cup series, while one try would also push him clear of team-mate Ben Smith in the tries count
- New Zealand lost their last test at a neutral venue, 40-29 to Ireland in Chicago in 2016
- Australia have only led twice at half-time in the nine tests they have played so far in 2018
A draw or a narrow win would be enough to take Australia above South Africa and Scotland into fifth place, while a winning margin of more than 15 points would lift the Wallabies up a further place to fourth, on 85.86 points. Such an outcome would also result in New Zealand losing top spot to Ireland, a position they have held since 16 November, 2009.
Croatia will be bidding for a third consecutive win in the Rugby Europe Conference 1 South when they take on Israel in Zagreb on Saturday.
Croatia have been in good form this season, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina and Cyprus by big margins, and another emphatic victory would see them climb back into the world’s top 50, possibly up to 47th. Israel, who narrowly lost out to Malta last Saturday, start the game ranked 60th, some nine places behind the hosts.
Malta, ranked 39th, the highest-ranked of all the European teams in action this weekend, take on Bosnia and Herzegovina in their second match in Conference 1 South. With more than 12 points and 36 places between the sides, Malta will not pick up any additional rating points in victory. Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, could climb as many as eight places if they spring a surprise.
In Conference 2 South, Bulgaria stand to make big gains if they come out on top against a Slovenian side ranked 20 places higher. Any form of victory would come with a 1.37-point reward for Bulgaria and a gain of at least four places to 86th. With a fraction under one point on offer for an away win, Slovenia could jump up to 67th.
The remaining fixture comes in Conference 2 North where Denmark host Norway. Denmark began their campaign with a narrow 22-18 loss to Finland a fortnight ago, while seven days later Norway came out on the right side of a tight match against Austria, 9-6.
As the home team and the higher-ranked of the two, Denmark will be fancied to extend their winning run over their Scandinavian rivals to five matches. If successful, they will move above India into 82nd place. Defeat would drop Norway below Pakistan and leave them 93rd in the rankings.
A Norway win, however, would be accompanied by a gain of at least three places to 89th.
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