'New era' as Test rugby resumes with All Blacks, Australia clash

Wellington (AFP) –

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New Zealand and Australia will play the first rugby Test since the pandemic on Sunday after the coronavirus halted international fixtures and set off a war of words between the two sides.

The Bledisloe Cup clash at 4pm (0300 GMT) in Wellington ends a year on the sidelines for both teams, who last played at the World Cup in Japan. The last Test rugby worldwide was at the suspended Six Nations in March.

"It's a new era," Wallabies captain Michael Hooper declared.

"We're lucky that we get to kick off international Tests again and what a way to do it with the Bledisloe."

With 30,000 fans expected, and face masks not compulsory in Covid-contained New Zealand, Hooper noted that after limited crowds at Super Rugby in Australia this year, it was "25,000 more than we've been used to, thanks to Covid".

Months of bickering have brought relations to their "lowest ebb", according to Australian rugby boss Hamish McLennan, after New Zealand proposed leaving out up to three of Australia's teams from a revamped Super Rugby competition.

Then followed a row over hosting the Rugby Championship, which went Australia's way, and culminated in New Zealand blaming their closest neighbours for a Rugby Championship draw that would have meant the All Blacks being in quarantine for Christmas.

While the date of the final match was eventually changed to meet the All Blacks' Christmas wish, it came at a reported financial cost for New Zealand.

In the countdown to Sunday's kick-off, when it seemed that tensions had calmed, there has been speculation New Zealand would turn up the heat again by performing their provocative "Kapa o Pango" pre-match haka instead of the traditional "Ka Mate".

"Kapa o Pango" ends with a movement interpreted by many as a throat-slitting gesture, although New Zealand's indigenous Maori say it represents drawing the breath of life into the heart and lungs.

When the national anthems and haka are done it will be left to the on-field combatants to resolve their differences.

- 'Fight for every inch' -

New All Blacks coach Ian Foster, former assistant to Steve Hansen, was forced into a late change of plan when two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett was ruled out on Saturday with an Achilles tendon problem.

Barrett was replaced at fullback by Damian McKenzie, who hasn't played a Test for two years, as Foster opted against moving Barrett's younger brother Jordie in from the right wing.

Australia's incoming coach, New Zealander Dave Rennie, is getting his first taste of Test rugby and named three uncapped players in his starting side, while promising a tactical kicking approach rather than the running game of his predecessor Michael Cheika.

While Rennie's Test credentials are unknown, his background includes replacing Foster as head coach of a struggling Waikato Chiefs in 2012 and immediately winning back-to-back Super Rugby titles.

He is also credited with unearthing a young Sam Cane, who made his Chiefs and All Blacks debuts in 2012 and is now the All Blacks captain.

They share a relationship which Cane said has given him a good insight into what to expect from the Wallabies who will "fight for every inch".

"It's going to be a heck of a Test match... They're very physical, it'll be fast, it'll test us physically and mentally," said Cane.

After two weeks living and training in quarantine in Christchurch, the Wallabies flew to Wellington on the eve of the Test, with Hooper, who is playing 100th Test, saying "we're ready" despite the unusual build-up.

"Who'd have thought, at one point, any of us would be playing Test rugby this year. We're all pumped," he said.

Cane, however, while offering his congratulations to Hooper, added: "We'll be doing our best to spoil his party."