SYDNEY — Ewen McKenzie will make his debut as Australia’s coach on Saturday with a team he promises will be more attack-oriented than the one guided by predecessor Robbie Deans.
The Rugby Championship opener doubles as a Bledisloe Cup match against world champion New Zealand, which has held the venerable trans-Tasman trophy since 2003.
“We’re certainly not going to deny the players the opportunity to have a go,” McKenzie said. “People are expected to use their skill and, if they can create an opportunity, then go for it.”
There’s also been some prematch entertainment, with McKenzie and his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen disagreeing about which coach was feeling more pressure heading into the opener.
“Australia haven’t had a great run against us for a while now,” Hansen said before the All Blacks left for Sydney. “That’s all been attributed to Robbie Deans, which is a wee bit unfair.
“Everyone seems to think that Ewen’s going to make the difference so there’s got to be pressure on him. What happens if it doesn’t work?”
“Ewen’s telling them they’re going to outsmart us and they’re going to play this sneaky, smart game,” Hansen said. “The reality is he’s going to play a little bit like Queensland and mix a wee bit of the Brumbies defense in it.”
McKenzie said it might be Hansen feeling some stress.
“When you coach the All Blacks, there’s a lot of pressure in that job,” McKenzie said. “When the All Blacks lose, as rare as it is, it’s attached to the national economy. The dollar might go up and down over there.”
Both teams announced their teams on Thursday. McKenzie made eight changes to the starting side which lost the series-deciding third test to the British and Irish Lions last month.
Flyhalf Matt Toomua will make his test debut for Australia while Quade Cooper was named on the bench. Cooper fell out of favor with Deans and was overlooked for the Lions series.
Cooper might have expected that the appointment of McKenzie — who coached him at Queensland in Super Rugby — would provide an upturn in his selection prospects, but it was Toomua who got the flyhalf role, as one of 10 ACT Brumbies in the squad.
For New Zealand, Ma’a Nonu was passed fit to start at inside center for his 80th test.
The 31-year-old Nonu has played Super Rugby for three New Zealand-based teams over the past three years. But after leaving the Highlanders at the end of last season, he has not been able to find a New Zealand team willing to take him on.
Captain Richie McCaw will return from an eight-month sabbatical to play his first major match of the season and lead New Zealand in his 117th test. McCaw took a break from all rugby after the tour of England last December.
Australia captain James Horwill said Friday that former rugby league international and Australian Rules footballer Israel Folau needs to get more involved in the play in his fourth rugby test.
“He’s got free rein to make sure he gets the ball as much as he wants … he’s a guy who makes defenses worry,” Horwill said. “So we want to make sure Izzy gets as much ball as he wants.”