Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: McKenzie surprises with fresh backline

Waallabies coach Ewen McKenzie. Photo / NZPA
Waallabies coach Ewen McKenzie. Photo / NZPA

All the tremors came with the selection of the Wallaby backline.

It was a new-age choice from coach Ewen McKenzie who picked a group to agitate the All Blacks' planning and stir their anxiety for the start of the Bledisloe Cup series.

All the public and media money was on McKenzie using the backline who tangled with France in June but he has gambled with a new formation as the Wallabies try to claim a trophy they last held in 2003.

McKenzie was able to assess multiple backline combinations although he is far more restricted in his pool of forward talent.

His backline selection is bold, especially as he has benched goal-kicking Bernard Foley who guided the Wallabies through June before steering the Waratahs to their historic Super rugby triumph.

Kurtley Beale will be asked for a positive attacking edge and to offer a strong variety about his run-kick-pass decisions to set the tone for the Wallabies' attempt to begin the series on a winning note.

There have been slim pickings since the All Blacks slammed the trophy cabinet shut on the Bledisloe Cup in 2003. The Wallabies have begun two campaigns since with a victory, one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne, and lost all 10 series.

The All Blacks will be wary of Beale and know the danger his running game provokes.

McKenzie unleashed that in his last two seasons as Waratahs coach in 2007-8 when he promoted a teenage Beale to start at first five-eighths. Later Beale played the majority of his 42 tests at fullback for Robbie Deans.

Adam Ashley-Cooper is also retained at centre where his workrate, positional sense and experience make him much more valuable for the Wallabies than he was when he was railroaded to the wing.

He is one of two Wallaby survivors from the last time they won the opening test in a Bledisloe series - in 2008. The other is Wycliff Palu who will play in the boot of the scrum.

Only two All Blacks who started that test will return on Saturday. Jerome Kaino played No8 and Ma'a Nonu was in the midfield in a side which was captained by Rodney So'oialo and well beaten 34-19.

While public scrutiny will be buzzing about the Wallaby backline changes, the initial All Black focus will be about upsetting their pack at set-piece. If they restrict them that will have a suffocating effect on their backs.

The All Blacks will pressure the lineout throws of new hooker Nathan Charles to novice targets like Sam Carter, aim to nudge their scrum and persuade referee Jaco Peyper early that the Wallabies are infringing.

There will be messages given and lessons learned from the Crusaders' trip to the same Sydney venue when they slumbered through the opening quarter. It will be no different from any premium test where the pace and pressure goes up another few levels and rewards those who keep cool in the cauldron.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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