SPIRO: Black for the All Blacks, gold for the Wallabies

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Australia's fly half Kurtley Beale scores a try in the final seconds to win the match between Wales and Australia at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales, on December 1, 2012. Australia won the match 14-12. (AFP Photo / Paul Ellise)

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    I had my radio earphones plugged in on Sunday morning and tuned into the BBC world sports round-up service. Half asleep I heard an announcer break into the match call of an EPL game to give a 38 – 21 scoreline for the England – All Blacks Test.

    I had the impression that the 38 was for the All Blacks and wondered briefly how their defence could leak three converted tries.

    But I was jolted awake when the EPL commentary was interrupted to go to Twickenham for an interview with the ‘victorious’ England coach, Stuart Lancaster. My wife was not amused when I told her, breaking her sleep, that ‘England has monstered the All Blacks.’

    Several other interviews were carried about the upset result. Curiously, there was one brief announcement that the Wallabies had defeated Wales 14 – 12 and nothing about the sensational try on time that twice saw the Wallabies, in the same try-scoring movement, run the ball forward from their own 22 before Kurtley Beale was released by Dave Dennis to score an historic try.

    Steve Hansen was right about the All Blacks being out-played by England.

    The points differential from the 38 – 21 result represented the second biggest loss the All Blacks have ever suffered in 109 years of Test rugby. In 1999 the Wallabies defeated them 28 – 7, a victory that set them up for their RWC 1999 truimph.

    The Springboks defeated them 17 – 0 in 1928 on the strength of Bennie Osler’s kicking.

    And now the history books will record England’s 38 – 21 triumph, a victory achieved with three 21 year olds playing a major part in the outcome. With England hosting RWC 2015, this victory, after close recent defeats to the Wallabies and the Springboks, suggests that they will be the team to beat in that tournament.

    The impressive part of the victory was that they found all sorts of holes in the All Blacks defence. They also won the collisions. And in general they showed more rugby nous, on the day, than the All Blacks.

    The interesting aspect of all this is whether England can take this impressive form into the Six Nations tournament in 2013, and then for two more years to the World Cup.

    My guess is that they will. The team is young. It is powerful. And it is well-coached.

    England’s victory, also, threw into sharper relief the quality of the Wallabies’ play since their defeat by France at the beginning of their northern tour.

    It needs to be remembered for all those who have demanded the head of Robbie Deans on a plate that the Wallabies defeated England, Italy and now, while the All Blacks were drowning in points against them, a rampant, fired-up Welsh side, inspired by its fervent and partisan crowd to play some brilliant running, expansive rugby.

    And again for all those who continually denigrate rugby as a spectacle, these Tests were sensational spectacles in their different ways, with England out-All Blacking the All Blacks and the Wallabies down and out with minutes to play scoring an absolutely sensational try to send them into 2013 with the momentum of three successive wins.

    At the 77th minute of play at the Millennium Stadium, Wales had forced a 5m scrum on the Wallaby try line.

    Greg Clarke, the excellent Fox Sports match commentator, realistically, made the comment: ‘Wales are less than three minutes away from breaking their drought’.

    The drought was a dry run of six successive losses. Rod Kafer, who was at his most astute throughout the match, did not contradict this comment.

    Somehow the Wallabies forced a turnover-scrum when Wales could not clear a maul on the Wallabies try line. Then, from an excellent scrum, they moved the ball out to Drew Mitchell who broke away to the near the halfway mark.

    A series of phases then saw Berrick Barnes making a terrific break to the Wales 22. If a Wallaby had been able to link up, it was try time. But Barnes planted the ball where it lay exposed for what seemed like a couple of seconds before a Welsh player snaffled it.

    Now Wales made a terrible, if understandable mistake, in the hurly-burly of the moment. Instead of kicking the ball out, as they could easily have done and then resisted the last lineout (if there was time for it), the ball was belted down field.

    The Wallabies then had to run the ball back from close to their 22. So back they came. After a couple of phases, Berrick Barnes got the ball wide, Dave Dennis galloped through a gap.

    Beale came hurtling up on his outside. The pass was made. And Beale raced away to go over in a tackle.

    Amid all the noise, I heard Nathan Sharpe ask referee Wayne Barnes if time was up. ‘Time is up,’ Sharpe was told. So he indulged himself with taking a dropped kick, which missed, in an attempt to convert the try.

    Sharpe deserved this indulgence. It is his last game for the Wallabies. I have been a critic of his play. He has been dropped from the Wallabies several times by different coaches. But this year, when the future of the health of Australian rugby was at risk, he literally rose to the occasion with some terrific lineout and scrumming play and inspired captaincy.

    As an indication of the thrilling aspect of the Test, here is the scoring sequence, with the Wallabies scores first: 3 – 0, 3 – 3, 3 – 6, 6 – 6, 9 – 6, 9 – 9, 9 – 12, 14 – 12.

    It was clear to me, as well, that a lot of thought had gone into the way the Wallabies played in this Test.

    Drew Mitchell, who had a splendid game, played a lot in the middle of the field, to give the Wallabies a cutting edge to their phase attacks. And when Digby Ioane came on, he did the same thing.

    In the early parts of the Tests, when they had a 74 per cent possession advantage, the Wallabies kept the ball in hand.

    They missed the dazzling feet and speed of James O’Connor to make the breaks and Will Genia to clear the ball and break himself when the time was opportune. Several times Kafer called for Nick Phipps to run but the half-back did not deliver on runs or a decent stream of passes.

    Towards the end of the match, though, the kickingitis came back to the Wallabies game. Let’s hope the disease will be cured next year.

    So what we have now is the Wallabies ranked nunber 3 in the world, a fall of one place for the year, and in the other half of the New Zealand side of the RWC 2015 draw.

    The British and Irish Lions look as though they’ll have a strong core of England players who played superbly against the All Blacks, with some of the Irish and Welsh best players to give the squad a sharp attacking edge.

    And the Wallabies will go into the series with the Lions, which will be the biggest sports event in Australia next year, on a swelling tide of the optimism that comes from knowing they have defeated both Wales and England on their home grounds.

    Bring it on!

    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.