SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia coach Michael Cheika is among the growing list of Richie Mo’unga’s admirers but he expects to see Beauden Barrett start at flyhalf for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship opener next week.
Mo’unga outplayed Barrett and Springboks flyhalf Elton Jantjies in the final two weeks of Super Rugby as he helped the Canterbury Crusaders to their ninth title and his performances sparked debate in New Zealand as to whether he might oust Barrett from the starting All Blacks role.
But Cheika, who had met Mo’unga while on holiday in Fiji, could not see past twice World Player of the Year Barrett starting the Aug. 18 game in Sydney, which doubles as the first match of the Bledisloe Cup series.
“It doesn’t really concern me I suppose but what I do know is this — Beauden Barrett has been the best player in world rugby for the last two years in a row and he’s an exceptional player,” Cheika told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
“I’ve coached teams that have felt his wrath personally and his skill and ability.
“There’s no doubting that Mo’unga – he’s a class player and a good young fella … but Barrett is class and I think there’s no doubt he’s a player the All Blacks value very much and he’ll be out there next Saturday.”
The Rugby Championship has an added element of interest this year in that all four countries — South Africa host Argentina on Aug. 18 — are likely to trial the tactics and players they expect to take to next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The All Blacks lost the last time they met the Wallabies, in a dead rubber Bledisloe Cup clash in Brisbane last year.
And while coach Steve Hansen has said the Wallabies would start as favourites, pundits and former players on both sides of the Tasman Sea have scoffed at the suggestion given that Australia have won just two of their past 19 meetings.
“He’s a great coach but I think he may have had that one wrong because I don’t think many of his players would believe it to be honest,” Cheika said.
“I don’t think it’s very realistic. It’s pretty irrelevant at the end of the day.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford)