A game best not dwelled upon
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New Zealand ran away from the Wallabies during their Bledisloe Cup test match at Eden Park in Auckland (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford).
If cricket is indeed a funny old game, then the grand old game of rugby must have a wacky sense of humour, too.
How else can you explain a game in which the Wallabies defended better, hit the breakdown better, even provided more option in attack, yet walk away with less to show for it than the horrible display in Sydney a week-and-a-bit ago?
If there’s a Wallaby team that deserves to be beaten 22-0, it wasn’t the one that walked off Eden Park on Saturday night.
But don’t get me wrong here, Roarers, this isn’t at all to say that the Wallabies didn’t deserve to lose that game in Auckland, and with it, the Bledisloe Cup for 2012.
They were plainly dominated across the park, and never really looked like breaking the All Blacks line.
Furthermore, while the Wallabies short kicking game was better in the first half than it was in Sydney – but still a long way from perfect – it descended in the second half to pure guesswork and peer pressure. ‘If my teammates are kicking it, then I better too,’ seemed to be the Wallabies’ backs approach.
In one of the few moments of accuracy and actual insight from Phil Kearns during the Fox Sports coverage on Saturday night, he validly asked in the 63rd minute, “Why is the first instinct to put the ball on the foot?”
Kurtley Beale had just fluffed the umpteenth grubber or chip kick in traffic for the night, by which stage it truly did look as though the Wallabies were relying on the pure luck of the bouncing ball to produce something from nothing.
However, by this stage in the game, the All Blacks were on such a roll, and with everything including the bounce of the ball falling their way, the Wallabies were probably more likely to get a completely unlikely penalty try than they were to cross the stripe themselves.
And yet, they kept kicking the ball away when in possession. The Wallabies had enjoyed the best part of three-quarters of possession in the first twenty minutes of the game, but by the end of the game finished with just 40% of all contestable ball.
I thought the tactic employed in the first half by Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper, putting short chip and grubber kicks in behind the rushing New Zealand defence was a good one, and often there was space to be found. But it seemed that only fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper knew what was going on, and by half-time even he wasn’t getting the message.
Rob Horne was so often nowhere to be found, or when he did manage to amble through after a kick, he was so slow that he may as well not bothered. It was little wonder he was hooked at the break.
I thought it was interesting that Robbie Deans replaced Scott Higginbotham early in the second half, too. Between Higginbotham, Michael Hooper, and Sitaleki Timani in the first forty, the breakdown aggression from the Wallaby forwards was actually quite good.
Furthermore, when Dave Dennis also went off soon after, the Wallabies were left to play out the game with only two real lineout jumpers. And that just invited the All Blacks forwards to do exactly what they did: station Richie McCaw between Timani and Nathan Sharpe, and let him do in the air what he usually does on the ground.
A quick comment on Timani, too: I’ve not been a massive fan of his over the years, but I’d suggest that was his best display for the Wallabies yet. Any suggestions otherwise can only be coming from those wearing coloured glasses. Probably red ones.
All in all, this is probably one of those games the Wallabies should just put behind them and move on from. Yes, they were better in several areas than in Sydney the week previous, but that is coming from a low base, and the All Blacks also played significantly better than their first outing of the Rugby Championship.
It’s becoming rather obvious that the All Blacks are nearing that once-in-a-generation state of greatness, and it’s hard to disagree with Deans’ post-match doubts that any coach in world rugby would’ve toppled New Zealand on Saturday night. And again, that’s not to say they were perfect, because they too would have areas they wouldn’t be happy about. Just the one try from dominant possession and territory, and 21 offloads to one, to name a few.
However, Deans is fast digging a hole for himself.
His side has scored only six tries in six Tests in 2012, and with three of them coming in the first June Test against Wales in Brisbane.
Quade Cooper was recalled in sheer desperation for the Eden Park clash, but even he can’t produce try-scoring opportunities behind a pack going backwards.
Deans’ 18% percent winning rate against his home nation is becoming harder and harder to ignore, too, even allowing for how good the All Blacks have been in that time. It’s very admirable that he has stated he does not intend to walk away from the challenge, but he just has to start beating New Zealand to be safe.
That all said, there are still another four Rugby Championship games that the Wallabies need to play – and win, ideally – and there simply has to be more improvement than what was initially shown on Saturday for the Wallabies to be any chance. Away games in Pretoria and Rosario will be difficult encounters, but no less important for the standings.
The Wallabies’ decision-making in attack needs to be a whole lot better, and the breakdown aggression and forwards intensity cannot tail off in the second half of any match from here on.
But I wouldn’t suggest reviewing the Bledisloe Tests to find inspiration, or even answers.
There won’t be much of either on show, and sometimes it’s just best not to dwell.
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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