It has taken a long time, 110 years in fact when the first Australia – New Zealand Test was played, but the All Blacks have achieved 100 Tests wins against the Wallabies. Remarkably, the ton has come up for the All Blacks after only 146 Tests.
The next best largest number of wins of one country against another is England’s 73 victories over Ireland.
The curse and the blessing for Australian rugby is that the nearest rugby country to Australia is New Zealand.
The All Blacks have been the benchmark for excellence in rugby virtually every decade since their first Test at Sydney, which they won, in 1903. That is the curse.
Currently, New Zealand rugby is probably stronger in terms of results and potential (have a look at the ITM games to see the next generation of great players coming through) than at any other time: all the world rugby trophies, men and women, except for the Under-20s are held New Zealand national sides.
The current domination of the Wallabies is even greater than that of the Maroons over the Blues in the last eight State of Origin series.
The All Blacks have won 10 consecutive Bledisloe Cup series. They are on track to record their 11th series win. The record is 12 by an All Blacks side and five by Rod Macqueen’s Wallabies (what a great coach Macqueen was).
And with Macqueen in mind, it needs to be remembered that playing and losing and sometimes winning against the All Blacks has lifted the performance of Wallaby sides. And any number of New Zealanders, greatly in excess of Australians who have played for the All Blacks, have strengthened Wallaby sides since 1903.
That is the blessing.
The Wallabies have won, for instance, two Rugby World Cups, the same number as the All Blacks. They have a winning record against all other national sides, except the Springboks, a deficit that is historical rather than recent.
I don’t think Australian rugby could have achieved what is has, ‘playing above its weight’ as John Connolly puts it, without the stressful but exciting challenge posed every series by the All Blacks.
The 100th victory was achieved in style at ANZ Stadium at Sydney in front of about 68,000 spectators with the All Blacks scoring six tries to two.
The 49 – 27 scoreline was only the fourth time that an All Blacks side has amassed over 40 points against the Wallabies.
The half-time score was 25 – 19.
But result could have been out of sight even then for the Wallabies except for some a slice of luck and an amazing 80 run by Will Genia which saw him out-run Aaron Cruden and then slip the covering defence with an audacious dummy to score one of the great Wallaby solo tries.
The point here is that time was almost up on the clock and the All Blacks had an attacking lineout near the Wallabies try line.
The Roar had a box at the game for some Roarers who had won their way into the box, a reward for their insightful and enthusiastic writing, and I was sitting beside one of the most insightful and enthusiastic of the group, the mighty Sheek.
I was in the middle of saying to him that a try or even a successful penalty to the All Blacks at this point could easily open the floodgates in the second half to a truly embarrassing tally. And as I was punditing (can the descriptive noun pundit be turned into a verb?), Andrew Hore over-threw the lineout. Michael Hooper (the Wallabies best on the day) raced through and caused a disruption and somehow the ball ended up with Genia to make his fantastic run.
From the kick-off, though, with only a minute or so of time left in the half, the All Blacks came back to make a serious assault on the Wallaby line and forced a kickable penalty which Cruden, the All Blacks man of the match (closely followed by the three Smiths, Aaron, Conrad and Ben, the immortal Richie McCaw, Julian Savea and Keiran Read), kicked over to make the score line 22 – 19.
There are several points to be made here.
First, the rugby statistician Matthew Alvarez alerted me to the fact some time ago that when the All Blacks lead at half-time they almost always win the Test. You can count the number of times this hasn’t happened in recent year literally on the fingers of one hand.
So if you can’t beat the All Blacks in the first half of a Test then you are going to struggle to be in front at the end.
It was extremely significant, too, as a sign of where the game was heading that the All Blacks immediately came back and got some points before the half-time whistle.
For throughout the first half there was a sense that the Wallabies were hanging on by the strength of Craig Joubert’s whistle with Christian Lealiifano kicking, in the first 40 minutes, four penalties out of four shots, plus a conversion.
This is not a criticism of Joubert. Once again he refereed splendidly. He was tough on both sides (but especially the All Blacks) slowing ball at the rucks illegally. He was insistent that the half-backs put the ball in straight into the scrums so that there was a contest in this area.
The result was a bright, open match with plenty of ball movement. The irony is that the Wallabies exceeded expectations in the scrum (until the All Blacks sent on a replacement front row). They had a majority of possession and field position.
They made more passes and created more breaks. The penalty count was greatly in their favour.
The one time in the match the Wallabies actually led, 12 – 10, with four Lealiifano penalties, the All Blacks came back from the kick-off and Cruden charged down Lealiifano’s clearing kick to put the All Blacks in the lead once more.
Let’s make this point very clear. The Wallabies are being confronted with a great All Blacks side, one of their best ever. It is a much better side than the one that won the 2011 Rugby World Cup. For one thing, the current team has world-class half-backs and terrific pace and power on the wing.
But let’s make this point very clear, too. Some of the touted Wallabies did not relish confronting the All Blacks.
The first name that immediately comes to mind is Israel Folau. Last week I made the call in The Roar that he was a ‘lazy’ player.
The wrath of the gods descended on my head from irate Roarers.
Well gentleman I present my case: Folau had two touches and one run in the Test. His opposite Julian Savea was everywhere, chasing, catching, tackling, running, passing, and making an impact.
Several times in the Fox Sports commentary, Rod Kafer and Tim Horan called on Folau ‘to go looking for the ball.’
Even without the ball, Savea was having an impact. From one All Blacks scrum, Savea was posted at number 10 and Cruden placed on the wing.
The fractured scrum meant that whatever move the All Blacks had involving Savea wasn’t really revealed. But I do recall that Jonah Lomu was used as a first receiver from scrums from time to time in his heyday.
Memo to Ewen McKenzie: develop plays closer to the set pieces that bring Folau into play. And insist that he has at least 10 runs/touches in a match, the number that Digby Ioane set himself for every Test.
James O’Connor was another who didn’t come up well.
He committed the cardinal sin on defence at the beginning of the game of not trusting the defence of Adam Ashley-Cooper on Cruden which allowed the play maker to flick a beautiful pass to Ben Smith to score after four minutes of play.
O’Connor’s jinking used to be the prelude to a devastating burst through the gap his dancing feet had created.
Now, except for his over-time try, the dancing feet are a prelude to more dancing feet and sooner rather than later an All Black smashed him down as he sort of tap-danced on the spot instead of bolting away.
Jesse Mogg is too physically frail right now for Test rugby at fullback. He needs to develop a wiry sort of strength. It may be that Folau and Mogg need to be swapped.
Matt Toomua was tidy. But he didn’t take the ball to the line like Cruden (was Toomua ever tackled in the match?) and he did not show his bristling and rushed defence that was a trademark of his play for the Brumbies.
The Wallabies back five, with the exception of Michael Hooper, were pretty pedestrian and lacking in mongrel.
Against this, the lineout worked well on Wallaby ball and they disrupted a number of All Black throws.
The front three did well, initially in the scrums, and they tackled well, especially at the beginning of the Test. But they were beaten physically in the breakdown clashes and in the tackles.
There was a curious lack of emotion or passion in the play of the entire Wallaby side, a bit like the low-keyed match the Reds played in their Super Rugby Qualifier final against the Crusaders.
Australian rugby players I’ve noticed tend to equate aggression with punching or incidents off the ball.
So when they occasionally play with mongrel intent they are inclined in the manner of Quade Cooper in his contretemps with Richie McCaw to use knees and fists illegally.
The All Blacks showed that you can play with passion and mongrel and not do head-high tackles or indulge in punching.
There was a real ferocity in their gang-tackling. A ferocity in their running. And a ferocity in the way they hit the rucks and mauls.
It was all legal, and it was lethal. It is rather like the way the Maroons play in State of Origin.
Where does Ewen McKenzie go from here?
He has to get more play from his best players. His ball runners have to challenge the line with hard running. I would think about adding the bulk and speed of Tevita Kuridrani, possibly on O’Connor’s wing.
There doesn’t seem to be a structure to the Wallaby game plan. Not long into the second half, Toomua and others started kicking the ball away, without chasers (where was Folau?) The All Blacks ran the ball back and got a momentum going that became a torrent of attacking play.
For most of the Test it seemed like a contest between boys and men, and men with ferocious beards at that. The Wallabies had eight changes from the last Test against the British and Irish Lions. There were new fewer than five debutants in the 23-man squad.
It is a new-look and youngish, inexperienced Wallaby side that has a lot improvement in it, and will need that improvement to start quickly – say in Wellington next weekend.
The All Blacks starting side was grizzled with 300 caps more than the Wallabies, and four players well into their 30s. But a couple of these old-timers, McCaw and Conrad Smith, particularly, played with the enthusiasm and zest of youngsters.
The youngsters, like Savea and Cruden, played with the nous and skill of old-timers.
As McKenzie pointed out, in the Bledisloe Cup and The Rugby Championship series, there is always next week.
Most of his predecessors as the coach of the Wallabies won their first Test. Robbie Deans started off with five wins on the trot, including a win against the All Blacks. The exception, like McKenzie, is Rod Macqueen whose Wallabies went down 23 – 15 to the Pumas in Buenos Aires on November 1, 1997.
Like McKenzie, Macqueen inherited a Wallaby side that had been comprehensively thrashed in its last Test.
Macqueen ended up the most winning Wallaby coach ever. Can McKenzie move on from his first defeat to create, in time, a Wallaby side that wins all the trophies that Macqueen’s golden Wallabies did?