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An unfamiliar Bledisloe Cup opener full of intrigue

After a weekend off, the Rugby Championship resumes on Thursday night with the Wallabies hosting the All Blacks in a Test that also opens the Bledisloe Cup series.

Melbourne's Marvel Stadium is the scene for a rare midweek clash between the two trans-Tasman rivals, with the last such Test played nearly 30 years ago in 1994 in Sydney.

That match, won by the Wallabies, set in motion the careers of one of the all-time great Wallabies in George Gregan, while Jason Little got Australia off to the perfect start when he scored a try inside 20 seconds of kick-off, the centre flying through the air to claim a David Knox up-and-under.

Then, later, as Jeff Wilson seemed destined to score in the corner and seal another All Blacks win, Gregan produced "that tackle" to dislodge the ball and get the Wallabies home.

So what might be in store in Melbourne then? Here are some of the key talking points.

AN UNFAMILIAR BLEDISLOE FULL OF INTRIGUE

Rugby Australia's [RA] decision to play a Test on a Thursday night, and have their New Zealand Rugby counterparts go along with it, might seem highly unusual, but when you consider the AFL Finals are on and this Bledisloe opener is being played in the Aussie Rules capital, it really makes perfect sense.

Ironically, RA would have avoided a potential clash with the second Preliminary Final anyway after Sydney earned the right to host their match against Collingwood by virtue of an upset win in the first week of the Finals.

Still, there is a touch of the State of Origin -- to borrow from another code again -- feel to this one with the Bledisloe having clean air in prime time on a Thursday night. RA executives will certainly be hoping for strong broadcast figures, particularly on the Nine Network, while indications are that more than 50,000 fans will pile into Marvel Stadium.

What is adding to the unknown factor for this Bledisloe Cup clash is that it is not, as usual, doubling as the opener for the Rugby Championship, which for so long has seen the All Blacks roll to a comfortable victory, with the outliers coming in World Cup years.

During the past two COVID-affected series, the Wallabies have had to travel to New Zealand for back-to-back Tests and while they went within a coat of goalpost varnish of victory in 2020, Australia have been largely easy prey for the All Blacks.

Furthermore, it has been incredibly hard to get a decent read on exactly where the Wallabies and All Blacks are at in 2022, after they dropped their July Tests series 2-1 to England and Ireland respectively.

They have since rolled to 2-2 starts in the Rugby Championship, both splitting their two-Test battles with the Springboks and Pumas one apiece.

And when you throw in Australia's wretched run with injury, and the circus that has surrounded Ian Foster's future, we have on our hands one of the more remarkable Bledisloe Cup build-ups in recent times.

For the record, 2010 was the last time a Bledisloe Cup Test was staged in Melbourne. On that occasion, the All Blacks powered to a 49-28 victory, fullback Mils Muliaina grabbing a double as Test greats Dan Carter and Richie McCaw also picked up five-pointers.

HOW MUCH WILL THE ALL BLACKS FEEL THE LOSS OF ARDIE SAVEA?

The short answer to that question is: Plenty.

There has been no more damaging nor consistent player for the All Blacks since the last World Cup, with the back-rower having been nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year in both 2019 and 2021, with the honour not awarded in 2020.

While he has been playing out of position at No. 8, Savea has remained one of the most destructive ball-carriers in the game; his ability to make metres after contact matched by few others across the globe.

Against the Springboks and Pumas, Savea averaged 12.75 runs per game for an average of 35.25 metres, with only Shannon Frizell managing more metres in one of those Tests; Savea was also among the top two tacklers for his team in all but one of the past four matches.

With Savea staying in New Zealand for the birth of his third child, the All Blacks No. 8 jersey will on Thursday be filled by Hoskins Sotutu; the challenge for the barnstorming back-rower not to try and replicate what Savea does, but to play his own natural game that has been a feature of the Blues rejuvenation in recent years.

"With Ardie not being here, they are big shoes to fill, but I've just got to do what I do, don't over-complicate it, and just be me," Sotutu said on Tuesday.

"I've been preparing myself to be ready for an opportunity. I knew it was going to be limited, so whenever it came I just had to be ready."

Sotutu hasn't featured for the All Blacks since last year's spring tour, his most recent action coming in the Mitre 10 Cup with Counties Manukau. Still, All Blacks coach Ian Foster believes he can get the job done in a new-look back-row that also sees Scott Barrett move to No. 6.

"It certainly tests you when you haven't played a Test match for the last couple of months," said Foster.

"But we have had him back playing NPC a couple of times, and he's fine. It's hard to tell with Hoskins sometimes, because he's quiet and has his way of doing things, but we've got complete faith in him. We just want him to execute the game we need him to play but also to not be afraid to show the skill set he's got."

IF SOTUTU IS A WORRY, THEN WHAT FEARS FOR FOLEY?

Asking a player to step into the cauldron of Test rugby after nine months without any international exposure is indeed a big ask, but one that is put into perspective by the predicament Bernard Foley finds himself in.

The veteran Wallabies No. 10 was on Tuesday recalled for his first Test since Australia's loss to Wales in the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup, a match that at that point appeared to have brought down the curtain on a 71-game international career.

But fast forward three years, amid an injury crisis and developmental issues at fly-half in Australia, Foley again finds himself pulling on the gold No. 10 jersey.

"No, not really," 33-year-old Foley said when asked whether he thought he'd get another chance at the highest level.

"As a rugby player you always dream and wished to be part of it, and I really appreciated my time away [in Japan]. But it also allowed me to reflect on my experiences and what this meant to me, and probably what this jersey means to so many people; not just my friends and family, but a lot of people overseas, a lot of expats who love watching the Wallabies play, who get so much thrill and excitement when we get to run out.

"So that's what I've really reflected on and am embracing this week."

While Rennie revealed the Wallabies were keen to give Noah Lolesio some continuity in the 10 jersey, there is no doubting that Foley now has the opportunity to not just do a job on Thursday night, but also put himself into consideration for the World Cup.

The young Brumbies No. 10 will likely only miss this week through concussion, but with Quade Cooper and now seemingly James O'Connor on the long-term injury list, Foley could emerge as the experienced back-up option for next year's global showpiece.

Foley is not looking beyond Thursday night however and nor should he - the New South Welshman's record against New Zealand reads 2-12-1.

A VICTORIAN GLOW TO A MELBOURNE BLEDISLOE

The development of rugby players from outside the traditional rugby states has always been a challenge for Australia.

Sure, players have emerged from Victoria, Western Australia and, in recent times, Tasmania, but for so long the bulk of the nation's player pool has come from New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT.

So it is really something that there are no less than four Victorian-born players in Thursday night's Wallabies squad, including the entire starting back-row.

While Rob Valetini and Pete Samu left Victoria to pursue their careers at the Brumbies and Crusaders respectively, Rob Leota and reserve prop Pone Fa'amausili have graduated through the Rebels pathway programs to play for the Wallabies.

They are joined in the matchday 23 by fellow Rebels Matt Philip, Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge, meaning the Victorian Super Rugby franchise has contributed the second most players to Thursday's squad behind the Brumbies; Marika Koroibete is another former Melbourne player.

"Pretty excited to go back to Melbourne, and to be able to play at Marvel Stadium; it's been a while since the Wallabies played there and to be in and amongst it, to run out on Thursday night will be emotional ... I'm really excited to play against the All Blacks as well," Fa'aumasili said.

"We've done a job with the Rebels trying to grow the game in the community and I feel like the club has done a great job and you can see the growth ... it's really come to life. And to able to bring an All Blacks versus Wallabies game down there just makes it more spectacular and it will draw a lot of attention to rugby, we know it's an AFL and soccer dominated city."

RARE 2022 AIR FOR THE ALL BLACKS OR MORE ROLLER COASTER WALLABIES?

Yes, we know there is always the possibility of a draw -- there have in fact been three Bledisloe draws since 2010 -- but Thursday night's Test will either see the All Blacks at last string back-to-back victories together or the Wallabies continue their up-and-down ride of 2022.

While a loss for the All Blacks wouldn't be terminal for their Rugby Championship chances -- they lead the tournament by one point currently -- it would certainly put the heat firmly back on coach Ian Foster.

Knowing the scope of the challenge that waits at Eden Park next week, a loss for the Wallabies at Marvel Stadium would be a far tougher hurdle for Dave Rennie's men to overcome; with questions likely to bubble away about the coach, too, and his ability to get the best out of this Australian group, albeit one ravaged by injury.

"I think everything that has happened prior to Thursday counts for little," Rennie replied when asked if he thought the All Blacks were vulnerable, as they appear to be this season.

"It's going to be our ability to perform at our best, and what we know is we need to be at our best; to have a chance against the All Blacks and have a chance against anyone this year, when we perform well we're confident we can knock over anyone.

"But we've got to play at our best and force the All Blacks to be below their best."

Foster, meanwhile, wants his side to roll their best performance of 2022, a 53-3 hammering of the Pumas, into a similarly ruthless showing in Melbourne.

"It's about having real confidence in what we do," the All Blacks coach said. "When you have a couple of losses early in the season, it's easy to go into your shell, and you end up wanting something so much that you stifle a little bit of the way you play.

"So it's a matter of encouraging people, you know your role, you've prepared well, just go and do it. We saw that in Hamilton and the key now is to see it again. We need players to go on the park and back themselves.

"We're primed and ready to go. It's a big game in the Rugby Championship, everyone is on the same starting-line with two rounds to go, so it's a big weekend to make a bit of a statement."