All Blacks face pivotal Wallabies clash as Championship goes to wire

·3-min read

New Zealand can put one hand on the Rugby Championship trophy with victory against Australia at their Eden Park fortress on Saturday, but the champions will not be decided until hours later when South Africa play Argentina in Durban.

Despite a stuttering campaign that has seen defeats to South Africa and Argentina, New Zealand are level on points with the Springboks at the top of the table and it could all come down to points difference if both win on Saturday.

New Zealand last lost at Eden Park in 1994 and they haven't been beaten by the Wallabies there since 1986.

Flanker Akira Ioane called the Auckland stadium, which will be a 47,000 sellout on Saturday, a "fortress for the All Blacks".

"We want to make sure we put in a good performance and don't leave anything up to chance," he said.

New Zealand went top of the Rugby Championship table after winning the Bledisloe Cup for the 20th straight season with a 39-37 win over Australia in Melbourne a week ago, secured only by a controversial try after the siren.

South Africa drew level when they beat Argentina two days later, leaving all four nations with a mathematical chance of winning the title.

"It's been a very different championship for all four teams," said New Zealand head coach Ian Foster on Thursday.

"It's exciting for the Rugby Championship that we've come to the last game and no one really knows (the outcome)."

Lock Sam Whitelock captains the All Blacks as they chase a third consecutive Test win after Sam Cane failed to recover from a head knock.

- 'Wake-up call' -

It's a far cry from the start of the Rugby Championship when the All Blacks came off a 2-1 home series loss to Ireland to be thumped 26-10 by the Springboks in Mbombela.

The under-fire Foster clung onto his job when the All Blacks bounced back with a 35-23 victory in Johannesburg but was again under pressure when Argentina won 25-18 in Christchurch.

Foster has opted for a new-look back row against Australia as Ardie Savea returns at number eight after paternity leave, alongside Dalton Papali'i and Akira Ioane.

Injuries to David Havili and Quinn Tupaea mean a new centre partnership of Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane, with Beauden Barrett starting at fullback.

"We've had our struggles this year, but it's been a blessing in disguise, because it's something new for the young guys coming in and for all of New Zealand," said Papali'i of a 2022 campaign that has seen the All Blacks lose four of eight Tests.

"We aren't used to it, so it's about us finding our feet again. It's a wake-up call, it's Test footy, the best of the best. It's been a good learning curve."

Australia have been forced into a pack reshuffle after lock Darcy Swain was banned for six weeks earlier Thursday for taking out the leg of Tupaea in Melbourne.

Towering lock Cadeyrn Neville replaces Swain with hard-running Harry Wilson given a chance at number eight.

"It's great to have Cadeyrn available and Harry's been working really hard," said Australia coach Dave Rennie.

Fly-half Bernard Foley retains his place despite being penalised for time-wasting which led to New Zealand's Bledisloe Cup-winning try in Melbourne.

New Zealand (15-1): Beauden Barrett; Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke; Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali'i, Akira Ioane; Samuel Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan de Groot

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Tupou Vaa'i, Hoskins Sotutu, Finlay Christie, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Sevu Reece

Australia (15-1): Andrew Kellaway; Tom Wright, Len Ikitau, Lalakai Foketi, Marika Koroibete; Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon; Harry Wilson, Pete Samu, Rob Valetini; Cadeyrn Neville, Jed Holloway; Allan Alaalatoa, David Porecki, James Slipper (capt)

Replacements: Folau Fainga'a, Angus Bell, Pone Fa'amausili, Nick Frost, Fraser McReight, Nic White, Reece Hodge, Jordan Petaia