James Slipper jokingly sledged the ‘new’ Wallabies playmaker and his “fat fingers” but is deadly serious about the impact Bernard Foley can have against the All Blacks on Thursday.
Foley will become the fifth man to play five-eighth for the Wallabies this season after Noah Lolesio, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Mr Fix-It Reece Hodge.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie confirmed that Lolesio would have started the Bledisloe Cup opener at No.10 if it wasn’t for his concussion but believes Foley’s experience can rub off in a similar way to Cooper’s spectacular comeback last season.
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Australia start massive underdogs at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium but the topsy-turvy nature of this year’s Rugby Championship and New Zealand’s struggles mean that anything is possible as the Wallabies try to end a now 20 year Bledisloe drought.
‘Iceman’ Foley, 33-years-old and based in Japan, hasn’t pulled on the green and gold since the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“It’s good having ‘little piggy’ around and his little fat fingers,” Wallabies captain Slipper quipped of the 71 Test veteran at the captain’s run on Wednesday.
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“Another experienced player for us. It’s been the tale of our season so far.
“We’ve gone through quite a few players. It’s that next man in attitude and Bernard has come in really well. He has been a big voice in our group this week and I’m excited to see him don the jersey.”
Rennie reacted to the flat 24-8 loss to the Springboks in Sydney by making eight changes to his starting lineup.
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Three of those were forced, with Lolesio and Hunter Paisami injured and Rory Arnold unavailable for family reasons.
The biggest surprises were at halfback, where Jake Gordon replaces Nic White, and openside flanker, where Pete Samu comes in for Fraser McReight.
“That’s kind of been our story of the season,” Slipper said of the mass changes.
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“The second South African game was the first time we’ve strung the same 15 together.
“And we’ve been forced into some more changes this week. We’re not strangers to it but we’re still going to run a game plan that we think will challenge the All Blacks.
“Regardless of who plays in those positions, we like to back ourselves that whoever’s in that jersey can do that role at that time. The biggest thing having ‘Nardy’ (Foley) back is just that experience and composure at the big moments and he’s fit in really well.”
It will be Slipper’s first time leading Australia into Bledisloe battle as he continues to fill in as captain for Michael Hooper.
The significance of the occasion – and the enormity of the opportunity – isn’t lost on him.
“We’ve got a couple of boys born the year we last won it (2002),” Slipper said.
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“It’s a long time. It works in our favor as well. These young players are coming in and haven’t gone through the last 15 or 20 years playing the All Blacks.
“They have had some great teams over the last decade. This team is just as strong I reckon. For our players, they are just excited to get out there. Most of them haven’t played the All Blacks consistently. It sets up a really good match tomorrow because we’re coming there to perform and I’m sure the All Blacks are too.”
Slipper, 33 and a Test centurion has strong memories of the Australia’s golden years.
“They were some of my fondest memories and probably a main reason why I wanted to be a Wallaby. I grew up watching the late 90s, early 2000s, being a really successful era for us as a country in rugby. At the end of the day we want to inspire rugby players around the country and we’ve got a job to do, we know that,” Slipper said.
“You can look at it both angles, we probably haven’t been up to standard and the All Blacks have been above standard. Some of the teams I’ve played against, in New Zealand, they’ve been pretty strong. You look back at that 2015 team, it’s world class…
“We understand how big these games are for the rugby community. It’s been 20 years. I’ve never won it. It’s one thing talking about winning it, it’s another thing doing it. I’m not really interested in going down the path of we’re gonna go out there and win. We got to make sure we do it on the field instead of here in front of the media.”
The loosehead prop admitted he had been surprised by the All Blacks struggles this season, suffering historic home losses to Ireland and Argentina.
The Kiwis did beat Argentina 53-3 in their last start but for once there is no aura of invincibility surrounding Ian Foster’s crew.
“They’re a big rugby nation. There’s a lot of pressure on their outcome,” Slipper noted.
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“They’re a team that has a whole country behind them who wants to see them win.”
Slipper will pack down against a Generation Next of All Blacks, with Tyrel Lomax, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Ethan de Groot forming the starting front-row.
But it is a name among the reserves that has really impressed him.
“I rate them, especially young Fletcher Newell on the bench,” Slipper said.
“He’s a strong tighthead, I played against him, Brumbies vs Crusaders, he’s got a bit of Owen Franks about him. One thing you know about the Kiwis is they’re always going to be strong. They’ve got a lot of depth in their team and in their sport so I guess regardless of who’s wearing the jersey it’s going to be a tough outing.”
Rugby Australia announced on Wednesday that Marvel Stadium had been sold out, with the return Test to be held at Auckland’s Eden Park on September 24.
WALLABIES (15-1): Andrew Kellaway, Tom Wright, Len Ikitau, Lalakai Foketi, Marika Koroibete, Bernard Foley, Jake Gordon, Rob Valetini, Pete Samu, Rob Leota, Matt Philip, Jed Holloway, Allan Alaalatoa, Dave Porecki, James Slipper (c)
Reservations: Folau Fainga’a, Scott Sio, Pone Fa’amausili, Darcy Swain, Fraser McReight, Nic White, Reece Hodge, Jordan Petaia
ALL BLACKS (15-1): Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Hoskins Sotutu, Sam Cane (c), Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Tyrel Lomax, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan by Groot
Reservations: Dane Coles, George Bower, Fletcher Newell, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Beauden Barrett, Quinn Tupaea
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