Watching Wallabies is like deja vu
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The New Zealand All Black's Richie McCaw. AAP Image/Paul Miller
As Cory Jane crossed virtually untouched in the corner for New Zealand’s second try on Saturday night, the start of an old Mental as Anything song instantly came to mind.
“Don’t you get the feeling that we’ve done this kind of thing before…”
Alas, the start I hoped for had made way for the start I feared. Jane crossed in the 34th minute, and though Dan Carter missed the conversion, the 18-3 scoreline at that point presented an ominous warning of how the rest of the match should’ve played out.
It was, as great commentators ‘Rampaging’ Roy Slaven and HG Nelson liked to say, déjà vu all over again. Like so many times over this ten-year dominance the All Blacks have developed over the Wallabies, this latest chapter of Bledisloe history was heading down a way-too-familiar path.
I mentioned during Saturday afternoon’s cracking Roar event in Sydney (thanks to the guys and Arvo Beer for putting it on; great to chat those of you I caught up with and apologies to those I missed) that I’d re-watched the 2011 Rugby World Cup Semi Final on Friday night in the run up to Saturday night’s game.
In fact, I’d also watched the Brisbane Tri-Nations decider last week too.
I watched both games in the hope that I’d see something that might point to some opportunity for the Wallabies. And it did.
I mentioned in The Roar’s preview last Friday and again on Saturday afternoon that the All Blacks’ midfield combination of Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, and Ma’a Nonu hadn’t played a lot of rugby together in 2012, and therefore might – emphasise ‘might’ – be a bit rusty as a unit.
Defensively, the three of them might have some hesitation.
And it wasn’t just in the midfield that I saw some potential opportunity. In Brisbane last year, a good number of Wallaby line breaks came by exploiting the gap between Carter and any slightly slow-off-the-mark covering forwards.
On three occasions, it was Adam Thompson, who didn’t play on Saturday night, but Richie McCaw featured here too.
Sadly, the Wallabies tried neither potential opening.
In fact, the only time I can recall a genuine midfield option runner was when Anthony Fainga’a came back on the angle between Carter and McCaw, who stopped him comfortably anyway, before referee Alain Rolland brought play back for a line-out penalty.
The Carter-Williams-Nonu combination was never tested other than one-on-one, against which the All Blacks midfielders were never headed, constantly thwarting the Wallabies with their line-speed, and then bashing them in the hit for fun.
With only Berrick Barnes capable of providing a kicking game, the All Blacks rushed off their line from the outset because they could.
In turn, Barnes had to play deeper to get more time for his kick, which by halftime had Will Genia throwing passes well over ten metres backwards, even if just using a lineal, side-on view for measurement.
For what little Fainga’a and Rob Horne offered in attack, they did at least do a decent job on keeping Williams and Nonu quiet.
Picked as defensive centres, they did this job quite well, but this had the net result of the All Blacks using Williams and Nonu as decoys for the most part, which in turn unleashed Israel Dagg and Jane from the back.
Both scored set-piece tries – coming from schoolyard errors likened by Tony Squires in a radio post-mortem on Sunday as “the skill equivalent of me forgetting my name” – and as good as Jane’s was, Dagg’s was just superb in its set-up and precision execution.
As Williams and Nonu came back infield, dragging Fainga’a, Horne, and for some reason Adam Ashley-Cooper with them, Dagg took the Carter pass with nothing in front of him, and only a Kurtley Beale fingerprint behind him. It was simply brilliant.
However, to put all the blame on the backs would grossly overlook the fact that the Wallabies were badly beaten at the breakdown all night, and must improve substantially.
Both teams’ set piece was pretty solid on their own put-in or throw, but the breakdown was pure a black-out, just as were good sections of the ANZ Stadium seating.
And with David Pocock ruled out of the Eden Park clash already, it’s hard to see how that situation will improve this Saturday in Auckland.
Michael Hooper or Liam Gill will be itching to test themselves in this biggest of rugby cauldrons, but there’s more than a hint of lion feeding about such a prospect.
Either way, whichever young pilferer gets the nod, the other one can’t remain unused on the bench next to whoever gets to hold Genia’s tracksuit.
With Robbie Deans’ interview words, “We won’t defend the Rugby Championship” still ringing in my ears, I simply can’t see how backline changes can be ignored, either.
Bret Harris suggested in The Australian yesterday, “Maybe the best thing Deans can do is nothing. Just send them out again.” And that is an interesting thought, if perhaps in a kind of masochistic way. It’s true that the backline from Sydney would love nothing more than to extract revenge on their highly fancied, now unbackable rivals.
But I honestly think to do nothing would be a travesty along the lines of what Nike has done to the Argentinean jersey.
Our own David Lord suggested a Genia, Quade Cooper, Drew Mitchell, Barnes, Ashley-Cooper, Digby Ioane and Beale combination. Harris espoused a similarly tweaked backline, albeit with Ioane remaining on the left wing as he was on Saturday night.
Either side looks a better option on paper, where admittedly few games are played.
Bringing back Cooper makes a lot of sense, even if just to provide another kicking option. Dropping Beale, however – as bad a game as he had – makes none.
Wayne Bennett has the oft-quoted line, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Yes, it’s a big ask to bring Cooper back into play straight into the furnace of an Eden Park Bledisloe fixture, but it’s an even bigger ask to expect an attacking game from a defensive arrangement.
The Wallabies might not lose by making tackles, but they definitely won’t win without scoring points.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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