The All Blacks admit they’ll target the Wallabies midfield for defensive weakness given a non-specialist centre is set to be wearing the gold no.13 jersey in the opening Bledisloe Cup match.
Season-ending injuries to Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani mean Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will be naming a new outside centre on Thursday, and with Curtis Rona out of the squad and Israel Folau ruling himself out, Rebels utility Reece Hodge is likely to get the nod.
Hodge has played a handful of games at no.13 for Melbourne but has played more at no.12 and even no.10, and almost exclusively on the wing at Test level.
The 23-year-old has developed a reputation as the Wallabies new Mr Fixit, however, and his reliably staunch defence is highly valued by Cheika and the Australian coaching staff.
Confidence in defence will be sorely needed from Hodge at ANZ Stadium on Saturday given the no.13 role is not only unfamilar, it is also regarded by most as the toughest defensive assignment on the field.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster didn’t need a second invitation to heap pressure on, by agreeing outside centre can be the hardest gig defensively and saying the Kiwis would be look to “ask questions” of the Wallabies no.13.
“We are pretty interested to see who turns up (in the position),” Foster said.
“He (Cheika) has some good options there. Certainly it is not the easiest thing to get right, defending at 13. But I think the way we see it is he is building some great options throughout that squad, and you can see that depth grow and grow and grow.
“It is going to be a little bit of a challenge, whether it is Hodge or Toomua, or which ever way they go, I guess it would be a slightly new combination.
“I am sure they will be working hard to make sure they learn pretty quickly. I guess we are going to have to ask some questions, aren’t we?”
Foster said the All Blacks were buzzing with a nervous energy for the game which he sheeted back to the Wallabies’ form in the June series against Ireland.
“I was pretty impressed with the series, it was pretty tight,” he said.
“It was one of those series that could have gone either way. It was very physical and you could just see, both teams, the Wallabies certainly looked like they’d taken some steps forward in terms off understanding what they’re doing.”
The All Blacks, contrastingly, fought out an unusual series against the French that saw them establish dominance against the tourists when they were reduced to 14 men in the first and second Tests.
A tight first Test was blown open by the Kiwis when the French were given a second-half yellow card, and the second Test was a non-contest after French fullback Benjamin Fall was red carded early in the game.
Asked if a true measurement of form could be taken from that series, Foster said: “I think you can. That’s Test match rugby, it always throws stuff you hadn’t quite expected.”
“The fact there were a lot of cards talked about in our series, at the end of the day that’s the game and it has always been like that. You have to deal with that,” Foster said.
“If you put that to one side, our job as coaches is to analyse what actually happened when the ball was in play and both Ireland and Aussie played a strong, physical game. The fact all three went down to the wire shows how tight it was.
“We know they will take a bit of confidence from that and we know because it is a Bledisloe in Sydney, we have to just keep going up and up and up.
“That’s why I am saying there is that nervous excitement from us, which is where we should be.”
Foster said the All Blacks had some nice selection headaches ahead of them, with a glut of options in the midfield and in the back-three. He dismissed “chatter” that Beauden Barrett was under pressure to keep the All Blacks no.10 jersey over Crusaders star Richie Mo’unga.