The focal point of the third Bledisloe Cup game in Sydney on Saturday will be the Australian back-line where two rookies will be playing as fly-half and centre; that, incidentally, is the place on the field which many opposition players slip through when making a line-break.
Noah Lolesio and Irae Simone will be under a lot of scrutiny and it may well be the game that establishes them. Both have come in because of injuries to the regulars in these positions, James O’Connor and Matt Toomua respectively. It will be a literal baptism of fire.
For the second time in as many years, Australia will be going into a Bledisloe Cup game against New Zealand with more Pacific Islanders in its ranks than Anglo-Saxons.
Of the 15 picked by the new coach, Dave Rennie, to take the field in Sydney on Saturday (31 October), eight will be Islanders. And on the bench, there will be another four from the same geographical area.
In the first game of 2019, former coach Michael Cheika picked nine islanders and one Aboriginal player as well for the team that thrashed New Zealand 47-26 in Perth. And on the bench, half the number were again islanders.
2019 game 1: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O’Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu and Scott Sio.
Bench: Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt To’omua and Tom Banks.
2020 game 3: James Slipper, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Allan Alaalatoa, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Matt Philip, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper, Harry Wilson, Nic White, Noah Lolesio, Marika Koroibete, Irae Simone, Jordan Petaia, Filipo Daugunu and Dane Haylett-Petty.
Bench: Jordan Uelese, Scott Sio, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Fraser McReight, Tate McDermott, Reece Hodge and Hunter Paisami.
Given Rennie is from New Zealand, his inclusion of this many islanders is not a surprise. New Zealand has benefitted greatly by attracting players from the many islands in the Pacific, with some notable names like the late Jonah Lomu and former All Blacks captain Jonathan Falafesa “Tana” Umaga. Rennie knows the worth of players from this region.
But will this ensure a win for Australia to keep the series alive? One doubts that Rennie is basing his selection on that criterion; rather, like all rugby coaches of teams that have a chance of being number one in the world, he will be looking to identify the best 15 for the next Rugby World Cup which is in 2023.
New Zealand is also trying out a few new faces for the third game of the Bledisloe Cup, which is the opening game of the Rugby Championship. [The latter contest will be a three-nation affair this year as South Africa has pulled out.]
Coach Ian Foster has had to call in Hoskins Sotutu to fill in for Ardie Savea who has taken paternity leave and Karl Tu’inukuafe will come in for Joe Moody who is under observation after being knocked out during the second game in Auckland. Sam Whitelock will return as lock, taking over from newcomer Tupou Vaa’i.