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The New Zealand rugby team has been named to play Australia in the opening Bledisloe Cup at Sky Stadium Kick off 4am Sunday.
The matchday 23 is an exciting blend of experience and rising, young talent, with the selection of three new All Blacks on the bench: lock Tupou Vaa’i, loose forward Hoskins Sotutu and winger Caleb Clarke.
The All Blacks starting pack features the experienced front row of Joe Moody at loosehead prop, Ofa Tuungafasi in the number three jersey, and 50-Test hooker Codie Taylor in the number two jersey. Props Nepo Laulala and Karl Tu’inukuafe and hooker Dane Coles, playing in his 70th Test, will provide front row impact off the bench. Samuel Whitelock will play his 118th Test at lock (becoming the fourth equal most capped All Black of all time, alongside Tony Woodcock) alongside Patrick Tuipulotu, while in the loose forwards, All Blacks Captain Sam Cane is at seven, Shannon Frizell gets the nod at blindside flanker, while Ardie Savea starts at number eight.
In the backs, Aaron Smith will play his 93rd Test at halfback, with TJ Perenara providing cover off the bench in his 65th Test. Richie Mo’unga starts at ten while Jack Goodhue at 12 and Rieko Ioane in his first Test start at centre make up the midfield. Anton Lienert-Brown is midfield cover from the bench. The starting back three is Jordie Barrett on the right wing, George Bridge on the left, with Beauden Barrett at fullback
All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster said he and fellow selectors John Plumtree and Grant Fox had kept an open mind about selections.
“We really wanted to see how players adapted and fitted in and how comfortable they were coming back into the environment and so there were a number of positions that we wanted to keep an open mind about,” he said.
“We’re excited by the group. There’s a lot of talent in there and we’ve got players jumping out of their skin and wanting an opportunity. It’s been fantastic to come together and know at the end of the week there’s a Test match. There’s been a lot of hard work, but the tightness of the group and the desire and the excitement about playing an international game is right up there.”
Foster is anticipating a fast, hectic, high-intensity contest from both teams.
“It’s a Bledisloe series and both teams will be determined to put a marker down. For us, it’s about getting our basics right and focussing on our set piece and momentum, and then letting the guys use their skillsets around the structure.”
Meanwhile, Foster has a message for All Blacks fans who have waited a long time for the return of Test rugby, especially those in attendance at Sky Stadium on Sunday.
“Just be loud and enjoy it. Whilst this is a massive game for us and the Bledisloe means everything, it’s also, in some way, a bit of a celebration after everything we’ve been through. For those that love the game, we just have to enjoy it and hopefully, together with the Wallabies, we can put on an occasion that befits that.”
The All Blacks and Australia will be playing their 167th Test against each other. New Zealand has won 115 of those matches, Australia 44 with seven draws. The All Blacks and Wallabies last played each other in Perth and Auckland during last year’s Investec Rugby Championship with Australia winning 47-26 in Perth and the All Blacks 36-0 in Auckland. The All Blacks have held The Bledisloe Cup (played between New Zealand and Australia) since 2003.
Mini bios – Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu and Tupou Vaa’i
21-year-old Caleb Clarke was in scintillating form during Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa and was one of the best performers for the Blues in his six appearances in 2020. The son of 1992-1998 All Black Eroni, Clarke is an explosive winger who has a knack of claiming silverware, leading Mt Albert Grammar to the National 1st XV title in 2016 and as a member of the New Zealand Under 20 team that claimed the World Championship in 2017, the Auckland Mitre 10 Cup-winning side in 2018 and this year’s World Series winning All Blacks Sevens team.
22-year-old loose forward Hoskins Sotutu spent most of his rugby growing up playing in the backline, emulating his father Waisake who also played for Auckland and the Blues. It was only in the later stages of his schooling that Sotutu moved to the forward pack and he has since gone on to play for the New Zealand Under 20s, Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup and made his Super Rugby debut off the bench in 2019. This season Sotutu turned heads as a powerful ball carrier and relentless defender. He was among the competition’s best with more than 100 carries and 80 tackles.
A former Wesley College Head Prefect and First XV captain, 20-year-old Tupou Vaa’i is the latest player to etch their mark in the school’s proud history of producing All Blacks. Vaa’i made his provincial debut for Taranaki as an 18 year old in 2018 and the following year made six appearances for the New Zealand Under 20 side. In 2020 Vaa’i stepped up to Super Rugby, playing all seven matches in Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa and emerging as bright prospect which the Chiefs recognised in extending his contract through to 2023.
The matchday 23 is as follows (Test caps in brackets):
1. Joe Moody (46)
2. Codie Taylor (50)
3. Ofa Tuungafasi (35)
4. Patrick Tuipulotu (30)
5. Samuel Whitelock (117)
6. Shannon Frizell (9)
7. Sam Cane (68) – captain
8. Ardie Savea (44)
9. Aaron Smith (92)
10. Richie Mo’unga (17)
11. George Bridge (9)
12. Jack Goodhue (13)
13. Rieko Ioane (29)
14. Jordie Barrett (17)
15. Beauden Barrett (83)
16. Dane Coles (69)
17. Karl Tu’inukuafe (13)
18. Nepo Laulala (26)
19. Tupou Vaa’i – debut
20. Hoskins Sotutu – debut
21. TJ Perenara (64)
22. Anton Lienert-Brown (43)
23. Caleb Clarke – debut