28 Jul 2023

Bledisloe Cup: Is an All Blacks win at the MCG a foregone conclusion?

8:38 am on 28 July 2023
All Blacks forward Scott Barrett.

Scott Barrett's form at lock has been so good there is still no place in the All Blacks for veteran Sam Whitelock. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Opinion - Low key sounds like an odd way to describe a game that'll be played in front of 80,000 people at one of the world's premier stadiums.

But since the All Blacks have taken a back seat to the Women's Football World Cup this week, it certainly does feel like the first Bledisloe Cup game of the year is flying under the radar a bit. Especially since right now, it feels like a foregone conclusion.

Also, while Melbourne is certainly buzzing for a big weekend at the MCG, if you were to walk down Flinders or Elizabeth Streets and ask the folks on their way to work this morning, that chat would almost certainly be about Collingwood playing Carlton in the AFL on Friday night.

There will be a capacity of over 90,000 in for that, then on Sunday Richmond take on Melbourne in front of what will be another huge crowd. So, while that is the obligatory 'Melbourne is not a rugby city etc.' comment, please spare a thought for the MCG's ground staff because they will be busy over the next 48 hours.

Do we spare a thought for the Wallabies, though? On form, you would have to think so.

The All Blacks have come flying out of the blocks this season, while Eddie Jones' side have managed to trip over the first two hurdles and are peeling themselves off the track in order to make a run for the World Cup.

Wallabies head coach Eddie Jones

Eddie Jones has not had a happy start back at the Wallabies with back-to-back losses. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Jones has rolled the dice. Tate McDermott and Carter Gordon will pair up as inside backs after very impressive Super Rugby seasons, but both will need to have blinders if they are to be the magic bullet.

Tom Hooper, normally a lock or blindside, is an intriguing selection at openside and will have to repeat the massive shift he put in for the Brumbies in their semi-final loss to the Chiefs.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks have resisted the urge to rotate their squad, which says a bit about how seriously they are taking this one. The only major change is Dalton Papalii taking over at openside for Sam Cane and as well as the skipper has been playing this season, they are not losing much by bringing the Blues flanker in.

Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane now appear to be the locked-in midfield pairing, although it is likely that Anton Lienert-Brown will get some substantial minutes to press his case.

But what of the locking duo? Has Samuel Whitelock's time as an inked-in starter come to an end? That is now two tests he has been fit and available for that he will not start alongside Brodie Retallick, with Scott Barrett's form too good to ignore.

Shannon Frizell's powerful performances in the last two tests mean the need to shift Barrett to blindside is not really a conversation anymore, besides, Luke Jacobson and Semipeni Finau are still in the mix.

Shannon Frizell breaks through to score a try.

Shannon Frizell is another who has stepped up for the All Blacks so far this year. Photo: AFP

That only leaves next weekend in Dunedin as the time to give Finau an All Black debut. A comfortable victory here in Melbourne will make it a bit easier to make changes for a dead Bledisloe II, but then again it will be Foster's last game in charge on New Zealand soil and the All Blacks will be fired up about taking back Dunedin after last year's disaster against Ireland.

For all the criticism of Ian Foster during his reign, of which there has been a lot, you cannot really fault his record against the Wallabies. While the first test was drawn, the Bledisloe Cup hasn't moved an inch, matches in New Zealand have been completely one sided and, in 2020, Foster's side smashed the Wallabies in Sydney by a record scoreline.

Even last year's controversial win here in Melbourne can be credited to Foster preparing the All Blacks well for a one-play, must score situation.

So, if the result at the MCG does go the way everyone except only the most diehard Wallabies fans are predicting, it will most certainly shoot the All Blacks around the bend and out of sight.

Even Jones' famously fast mouth won't be able to avoid having to swallow the incoming torrent of Australian inquisition if his record this year starts with three straight losses.

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