Waratahs' success has Wallabies optimistic vs NZ

DENNIS PASSA
FILE - In this June 7, 2014 file photo, Australian replacement Kurtley Beale slides in for a try during their rugby test match against France in Brisbane, Australia. Beale has replaced Bernard Foley at flyhalf in a reworked Australia backline selected for the Rugby Championship opener against New Zealand on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard, File)

If the New South Wales Waratahs' success is a bellwether for the Wallabies, Australia could be well-placed to end a lengthy losing run in Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand.

After finishing in 11th and ninth places in the previous two Super Rugby seasons, the Waratahs were the class act in the southern hemisphere provincial competition in 2014, finishing seven points ahead of the second-place Crusaders during the regular season.

The Waratahs then edged the Christchurch, New Zealand-based Crusaders 33-32 in the final to claim their first Super title.

Australia, with seven Waratahs in the starting lineup and three more on bench, opens the Rugby Championship against the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday, attempting to end New Zealand's 11-year domination of the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup.

There's a long-held attitude in Australia that when the New South Wales lineup is winning, that strength should transfer into the international arena for the Wallabies. The theory is about to be tested — fully.

The New Zealanders are aiming for a record 18th consecutive test win, and are coming off a three-test home series sweep of England in June.

In a bid to change the recent dynamics, Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie selected Kurtley Beale to replace Bernard Foley — who led Australia to three wins over France two months ago — at flyhalf in a reworked backline.

Beale played in the centers, outside Foley, for the Waratahs. But McKenzie is relying on the 42-test veteran's "X-factor" to give the Wallabies something extra in attack, despite Beale having started just seven tests in the crucial playmaking position.

"One of the things I've learned in this business is if you just sit there and look at the scoreboard, you can make lots of really simple decisions based on what the scoreboard was," McKenzie said. "But we recognized that playing France in June is different to playing the All Blacks in August. Against the All Blacks, you've got to go out there and have a crack ... we need to take a few risks."

All Blacks' coach Steve Hansen also pulled a surprise selection when he picked Ben Smith at fullback instead of Israel Dagg. Smith started at fullback while Dagg battled a right knee injury in the last two of New Zealand's test matches against England in June, but Dagg was widely tipped to return in the No. 15 jersey when he regained fitness.

"It was a tough team to select in many ways because we have a lot of players in good form," Hansen said Thursday. "But in the end we selected the group that we felt could get the job done."

Saturday's match is the first of three Bledisloe Cup matches this season. The second will be played the following weekend in Auckland and the third, which is not part of the Rugby Championship, is set for Brisbane on Oct. 8. New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003.

Hansen, who in the past has stoked the intense rivalry between the teams, was at his combative best Thursday before his team left Auckland. He was quoted as saying McKenzie may have selected Beale under directions from an Australian Rugby Union anxious to keep the off-contract player from the clutches of the National Rugby League.

"I was dumbfounded," Hansen reportedly said of the selection. "I thought 'why would he do that?' and I came to the conclusion that maybe Ewen doesn't trust (Foley) to do be able to do what he wants against us. But the other guy (Beale) is under contract and league are chasing him so you might start to think maybe the ARU has told (McKenzie) he's got to pick him."

Hansen also said it was "rubbish" that Australia is favored to end New Zealand's dominance in the Bledisloe Cup because of the resurgent Waratahs' Super title.

"They're under a lot of pressure ...'this is our year' — I find that interesting'," Hansen said. "It's no different to any other year."

___

Teams:

Australia: Israel Folau, Pat McCabe, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne, Kurtley Beale, Nic White; Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper (captain), Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Sam Carter, Sekope Kepu, Nathan Charles, James Slipper. Reserves: James Hanson, Pek Cowan, Ben Alexander, Will Skelton, Scott Higginbotham, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Tevita Kuridrani.

New Zealand: Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, T.J. Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Malakai Fekitoa.

__

AP Sports Writer Steve McMorran contributed to this story from Wellington, New Zealand.