No tries in Bledisloe 3, but still a great contest
Australia's Mike Harris reacts after their draw against New Zealand. AAP Image/Dan Peled
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I had made the comment late last week in the build-up to the Brisbane Bledisloe that it really didn’t feel like a normal Bledisloe week.
The Rugby Championship had been run and won already, and there was no real cross-ditch sledging as you’d normally expect.
It felt, I suggested, “rather more like an end-of-season jaunt against the BaaBaas.”
And perhaps that reflected in my own ‘approach’ to the game, if I can call it that. Where for most other big games this year I’ve read everything being said, taken note of team selections, even watched previous outings, for this game I did very little of that at all (I certainly wasn’t subjecting myself to either of this year’s trans-Tasman clashes again).
In fact, I didn’t even realise that New Zealand were going into the match with only one Franks until I didn’t see a second brother during the anthem line-up.
Where for all the games previous I would sit through them studiously taking notes, I instead relaxed and watched this game with a couple of mates; the perfect dessert to a sumptuous feast shared with good friends.
Perhaps that relaxed nature could be put down to the bottles of wine consumed during dinner, and the numerous beers downed beforehand, but such was my and our focus on all things other than rugby, we didn’t actually tune into the game properly until the teams were running out.
It wasn’t a lack of interest in this game, either, but perhaps it was one of those end of season games that you’re attracted to only because it’s on, not because it’s likely to bring anything that hasn’t already been seen throughout the season.
The All Blacks were always going to be up for this game, in looking to equal their record number of consecutive wins, and the Wallabies were desperate to finish the domestic international season on some modicum of a high, be that for themselves, their coach, or for their allegedly-retiring third caretaker captain.
And so what did we get?
Well, I realise this might not be even close to the common opinion, but I thought it was among the Wallabies’ best performances of the year, and a completely enthralling game from start until all five minutes after the slated end.
And no, that’s not the wine talking still.
I get that people will look at the 18-all scoreline, the no tries to either side, and six penalty goals each and will conclude that this game was dire. I don’t agree with that point of view, but I do get that it’s out there.
What I saw was two teams that kept a 50,000-plus capacity crowd on the edge of their seats for 80 minutes, plus five minutes and change after that.
I saw two teams that did want to play with space and with ball in hand where possible, but who were thwarted by their own mistakes. And two equally good defensive sides, who probably kept their line in tact as much through good luck as good management.
I saw two teams who made errors at the worst possible times, and whose supposed set-piece strengths were often the chink in their armour.
I saw two teams who did their very best at getting away with what they could wherever the chance arose, but who also earned the ire of the best referee in the game who always keeps a keen eye out for that sort of thing.
It was a compelling, gripping, absorbing, annoyingly defensive, frustratingly poorly executed, niggly, error-prone, brutal, wonderful game of rugby, and I loved every minute. A repeat viewing on Sunday confirmed this complex, but necessary description.
From a local perspective, the Wallabies will be annoyed they couldn’t get the win, given the possession and territory advantages they enjoyed.
They did superbly well to hold possession for the 26 or 28 or however many phases it was to get themselves deep into New Zealand’s half after the siren, but will rue their inexperience for not seeing that the All Blacks were never going to give away a penalty at the breakdown to which they weren’t committing numbers.
In time, this experience will jolt Kurtley Beale and/or Mike Harris into the realisation that in the same situation, they need to take charge and present as a drop goal options when the penalty’s not looking likely. They can’t just sit back and wait for the ball to arrive.
The Wallabies should be rightly be proud of the fact that despite the many chances the All Blacks had to create tries, they couldn’t break the Wallaby line.
But that’s not to say the Wallabies had it all their way. Yet again, their discipline at times was appalling and, yet again, the lineout throwing was as accurate as my ability to pick Lotto numbers. The restarts, the handling under the high ball, the handling in general play for that matter; basic skills of the game went missing so often.
Yet somehow, they kept their line intact and even managed to force All Black errors, which is something not too many teams have done this year.
Did New Zealand crumble under the pressure of a record? We may never know that in truth, but certainly, they wouldn’t have been happy with their inability to convert those numerous chances into tries.
Their front row had some issues at scrum time, and Dan Carter had something of an off night with the boot, missing two penalties and pulling what would’ve been the match-winning drop goal.
All the errors throughout the game were a direct result of the pressure from both teams, and that’s what made it a great contest. It didn’t produce any tries, but that didn’t make any less enjoyable.
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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