SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia captain Michael Hooper is preparing for a bigger battle than usual at the breakdown when the Wallabies take on an All Blacks squad with three openside flankers in their final Rugby Championship test in Perth on Saturday.
With Ardie Savea, who normally plays in the number seven or eight shirt, selected at blindside flanker, Sam Cane at openside and Matt Todd backing up from the bench, Hooper is expecting the All Blacks to be over the ball all night around the tackle area.
“We play these guys a lot, we know that the on-ball presence is going to be fierce as it always is in that matches against New Zealand,” Hooper told reporters in Perth on Friday.
“Ardie poses a big ball-carrying threat and is great on the ball as well so it’s going to be a fierce breakdown challenge. We’ll see how it plays out.”
With David Pocock still a week away from his long-awaited return from a calf injury, Hooper will play at openside in the Australia back row with the relatively inexperienced blindside Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and rookie number eight Isi Naisarani.
The Wallabies employed Pocock and Hooper as twin opensides to great effect in their run to the World Cup final four years ago and the Australia skipper said he thought such experimental formations could sometimes be very effective.
“I think it’s an opportunity for (New Zealand) to do something different, to show another picture. We don’t know what to expect. They’ll be working it out on the run,” he added.
“They’re always very solid on what they have to do individually, they’ll be looking for something out of Ardie and Sam respectively. Wait and see what that brings and we’ll have to deal with it accordingly.”
One negative aspect of playing two opensides in a back row is the impact on the lineout with the classic blindside flanker expected to bring a bit of height and act as another jumper.
Hooper, who stands a shade under six feet (1.82 m) and could never be confused with a lineout jumper, said the All Blacks might not find it such a disadvantage even with Salakaia-Loto, who can play lock, in the Australia back row.
“They’re a world class lineout and have been for however many years,” he said.
“I know that when we’ve worked in that shape, it’s sometimes about speed, not always height.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)