Australian Adam Ashleigh Cooper (centre) is tackled by New Zealand\'s Jimmy Cowan (right) and Ali Williams (left) during the Tri Nations final between the Australian Wallabies and New Zealand All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. The All Blacks beat the Wallabies 28-24. AAP Image/Dave Hunt
The final of the 2008 Tri-Nations tournament – won by the All Blacks 28-24 over the Wallabies – was “a marvellous match packed with variety, intensity and no little tension”.

The praise is lifted from the opening sentence of the UK Sunday Telegraph’s rugby expert, the former England second-rower and no friend of the experimental law variations, Paul Ackford. I couldn’t have put the description better, what with the excitement, the high drama, the vivid passages of play, the passion of the players and the crowds (with the ground resounding time after time to great cries of Wallabies! Wallabies! and All Blacks! All Blacks!) and the nail-biting finish.

Compare this great Test, a match that was a do-or-die game for both teams, with the rotting cold fish of the 2007 Rugby World Cup final in Paris less than a year ago. The RWC was a safety-first yawnathon played in slow motion compared with the titanic and exhilirating Brisbane Test.

What made Saturday night’s Test so wonderful was that every ruck and maul was sternly contested, especially by the All Blacks, which meant that there were many turnovers and counter-attacks and scrambling defences.

In Paris, the players could have played another 80 minutes more but at Brisbane all the players and the officials were stuffed at the end. Stirling Mortlock was puffing like a bishop forced to chase a bus at the end and could hardly blurt out the usual after-Test cliches that the television broadcasters love so dearly.

And this brings us to two points that were highlighted in the Test. There were, apparently, 25 short-arm penalties awarded. This meant that play was on whenever a tap-and-run was on, as happened when the All Blacks scored their first try. There was far less time-wasting penalty kicks at goal (the All Blacks did not have one penalty kick) than you see under the current laws.

The referee, too, was able to make decisions with the ELVs about slowing the ball down and so on, and if he made a mistake, as he did occasionally, the punishment was not as harsh for the aggrieved side as it might have been.

We saw the unfairness of the long-arm penalty sanction when Richie McCaw was penalised incorrectly for offside when he correctly came from behind his ruck and picked up a ball that was laying loose.

Of course, Phil Kearns, whom I’m convinced does not know or understand the laws at rucks and scrums, yelled out that is was about time etc. But when the play was shown in slow-motion, there was a noticeable silence from the panel of commentators.

The second point about the ELVs is that, in the words of a shrewd rugby thinker Hugh Dillon, they allow for a “running of the bulls”. The big players get tired with all the running around, especially the muscle-bound forwards but not exclusively because big backs get exposed too, and faster players come into their own.

This brings us to the master stroke of the All Blacks coach Graham Henry to take off Ma’a Nonu, who seemed to have a sore knee anyway, and bring on Stephen Donald and move Dan Carter out to second five-eights (in the NZ vernacular and rugby theory).

The shift of the smaller Carter to line up against the huge Stirling Mortlock looked counter-intuitive. But Carter’s quick and slick side-step and acceleration led to the crucial try as he got past Ryan Cross and Mortlock to score what turned out to be the winning try.

When he first came into rugby from rugby league I didn’t think much of Cross’ play, to be honest. But he has played very strongly in the Tests, and had a particularly strong game in Brisbane.

He did miss two crucial tackles that led to NZ tries (what is it about these Rugby league defenders?). But when Berrick Barnes comes back, Robbie Deans is going to have to make a tough decision about the long-term future of his captain.

The Wallabies had something like five and a half minutes inside the All Blacks 22: the All Blacks had a little over two minutes inside the Wallabies 22. It seems to me that if Barnes had been on the field, the Wallabies, with two traffic controllers, would have made more of their territorial and possession (60 per cent) dominance.

With Cross playing so strongly, a future backline, perhaps late next year, might have as its core Luke Burgess, Matt Giteau, Berrick Barnes and Ryan Cross.

How do we rate Robbie Deans’ first home season as Wallaby coach?

My guess is that he would give himself about a 55 out of 100 pass mark.

The Wallabies won all but one of their home Tests. They defeated the Springboks twice, with one of the victories being a rare away win. They defeated the All Blacks in Sydney with a splendid performance and lost a home and away Test to the old foe. And they were thrashed twice, by the All Blacks in Auckland and the Springboks in Johannesburg.

The defence is not up to the standard of the Macqueen era, particularly. But Deans is slowly putting in place a new team that has a lot of promise.

Benn Robinson is helping the scrum stability. James Horwill (a future captain, perhaps) is becoming a dominant second-rower. Peter Hynes has established himself as the No.1 winger.The faith in Adam Ashley-Cooper was vindicated with his terrific try right on half-time. Ryan Cross seems to be a genuine Test player. Richard Brown, I thought, added a lot to the Wallabies forward mobility when he made his Test debut.

A work in progress, in other words, with the emphasis very much on the progress that should be made on the European tour at the end of this year.

Spiro Zavos
Spiro Zavos

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.