Both the coaches were disappointed about the 12-12 result of the first Bledisoe Cup Test at the ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. But they shouldn’t have been.
For the Wallabies, the draw stopped their run of seven-straight victories. Rod Macqueen’s magnificent Wallabies had 10 victories in a row, a record for Australia that will probably last for a long time.
And the Wallabies had a terrific chance to win the Test when they had a scrum near the All Blacks line and posts. They, finally, got a good hook from the scrum. Why didn’t they just set up a drop goal? Instead they ran the ball and conceded a turnover penalty.
For the All Blacks, who bravely tried to run the ball from inside their 22 with time up, the draw ends their fabulous run of 17 straight victories. This is the second time the Wallabies have stopped the All Blacks at 17 wins in a row.
Nick Mallett’s Springboks went 17 straight, too. So it is fair to make the point that this mark probably represents the high tide for sequences of wins.
But there were many pluses in the result for the Wallabies. The first one was that the pack (except for a couple of scrums) held up very well against an All Blacks pack that was more used to the wet, cold conditions than the Wallaby forwards.
Sam Carter is proving to be the tough, hard-working and powerful second rower the Wallabies have been looking for since Nathan Sharpe retired.
The Wallabies won 52 per cent of possession, after being well behind in the first 25 minutes. They also had 66 rucks and mauls compared with the 24 for the All Blacks. They had 410 run metres compared with 184, 427 kick metres to 538, 13 turnovers to 13 and 24 tackles made to 65.
The All Blacks had to make far more tackles. They have to contest far more Wallabies rucks. And they made far less running metres than the Wallabies.
These are the statistics that reveal that the Wallabies were able to play their ball-in-hand game with some success, despite the conditions. On a drier night the Wallabies would probably have made more of their chances than they did. For it is easier to kick the ball away, as the All Blacks clearly did, than it is to run it when it is raining and cold.
I liked the way, too, the Wallabies came straight out and tried to move the ball around. The first kick-off went into touch and the Wallabies immediately did a quick throw-in which, momentarily, caught the All Blacks by surprise.
Ewen McKenzie has talked some big talk since becoming the Wallabies coach. But he has to be given credit for the fact that the talk is being matched with performances on the field by the Wallabies. With Henry Speight in the team before the end of The Rugby Championships, injuries allowing, the Wallabies back line has potential to carve up any side, including perhaps the All Blacks.
The big story before the Test was what sort of impact Kurtley Beale would have at number 10. In my opinion, he did well. His pop-up inside passes kept the All Blacks defensive line from drifting early.
He kicked his penalties, except for a bad miss right on half-time. And I didn’t see any All Black runners going through him.
What Beale brings to the Wallabies is a certain unpredictability. He also has a rapport with Israel Folau. These two x-factor players, on a dry day, will pose all sorts of problems for the other sides in the the Rugby Championship.
As expected, Matt Toomua played first receiver from many of the phases of play. He has a kicking game that complements the running-passing game of Beale. So effectively, the Wallabies are playing the old New Zealand five-eighth system, rather than the traditional Australian fly half and inside centre system.
The big worry for the Wallabies coming out of the Test is that, at crucial times, the All Blacks scrum was superior to that of the Wallabies. This was especially apparent towards the end of the match when there were about 10 minutes to play.
One of those scrums ended up with Scott Higginbotham caught in a maul on the Wallabies try line. Peyper ruled ‘a mess’ and gave the scrum feed to the Wallabies. No wonder Aaron Smith gesticulated wildly in disgust. Then Peyper told the team there would be “no easy penalties” from the last remaining scrums before awarding the Wallabies an easy short-arm penalty for some technical infringement by the All Blacks.
‘Wallabies were lucky,” said Rod Kafer when Nic Phipps did not feed the scrum when he should have. “I think he wants to get out of here alive,” Nathan Sharpe reminded.
I have been careful here to quote what the Australian commentators said. It takes a lot for Australian commentators to suggest that the Wallabies are being let off the hook by the referee.
When the All Blacks led at half-time the statistic was announced that in 127 of their last Tests leading at half-time, they had won 123 of these matches. Now it is 123 out of 128 Tests. This provides a strong indication of just how well the Wallabies did in the second half to turn the Test around.
A problem for the All Blacks, obviously, was that they played about 18 minutes of the second half with 14 players.
I just found the decision of Jaco Peyper to yellow card two All Blacks just bout as bewildering as his scrum rulings. The two yellow card sendings off for ‘cynical’ play at the ruck have set a poor precedent. If players are going to be sent off for ‘cynical’ play, then most of the forwards will be in the sin bin. Certainly Michael Hooper and Richie McCaw would never finish a match.
The first penalty of the Test, for instance, when Scott Fardy deliberately fell across the All Blacks ruck and stopped a strong attack was as ‘cynical’ as that of the Wyatt Crockett and Beauden Barrett. Why wasn’t he given a yellow card?
The yellow card was introduced for repeated professional or cynical fouls in the scoring zone. Several infringements were needed before the yellow card sanction was to be used. Under Peyper the yellow card seems to have morphed into a first resort punishment for play deemed illegal anywhere on the field.
There are too many yellow cards issues, anyway. By bringing yellow cards into general play, Peyper threatened to destroy the integrity of the Test. It was noticeable that the All Blacks coaches were so nervous about his propensity to hand out yellow cards that that took Crockett off the field.
The point here is that two yellows become a red card. They did not want to risk permanently one player down.
I would expect the New Zealand Rugby Union and the All Blacks coaching staff will be having strong words with SANZAR about all this.
I noticed, though, that Steve Hansen, who is often accused of being ungracious after Tests, opened up with congratulating the Wallabies on a fine display. He praised his own team, too. There was no mention of the referee.
Certainly New Zealanders seem to be pretty upset by what happened. Melodie Robinson, a rugby commentator in NZ, tweeted not long after the Test, “the ref won that one.”
For me what Peyper did diminishes the value of the Wallabies performance. It allows the sort of comment made by Melanie Robinson to get some traction.
It is no easy thing, right now, to halt the All Blacks juggernaut. The Wallabies did this and more. They looked more likely to score tries than the All Blacks. In coaching jargon, there was ‘more to build on’ for the Wallabies than for the All Blacks out of this Test.
This is why I reckon the result was more a half-full glass than a half-empty glass result for the Wallabies. What they have done is restore the power of the home game for the home side. This will give them confidence, for instance, when playing the third Bledisloe Cup Test at Brisbane.
Unfortunately for the Wallabies they now have to win at Brisbane and at Eden Park next week to win back the Bledisloe Cup. The last time the Wallabies won at Eden Park was in 1984 when Alan Jones’ side won back the Bledisloe Cup there.
This was the first time the Wallabies had regained the Bledisloe Cup in New Zealand since 1949. So perhaps there is an omen in all of this.
The point about the Eden Park fortress where the All Blacks have every won Test since 1986 is that statistically this sort of record becomes very difficult to maintain. The same applied to the All Blacks winning streak of 17 Tests.
In modern sport, runs like these are almost unnatural. They are supernatural.
Teams do not usually maintain a dominance at a venue or with a particular team more than a year or so. For the All Blacks, their unbeaten run Tests in the last two years and the fact that since 2008 they have increased their winning Test percentage from 75 per cent to 86 per cent of all Tests played, is not sustainable.
A correction will come. The question is when.
I think we are probably seeing this now. In the last five Tests played by the All Blacks, they have won on time against Ireland and England, then won twice quite well against England and now have drawn a Test against the Wallabies.
Because they toughed out a draw in an away Test, and playing with 14 men for 20 minutes, I reckon the All Blacks would see this result as a half-full glass result, too.
They have gained two valuable away points in the Rugby Championship. And they have forced the Wallabies to win the next two Tests, one of them in New Zealand, to win back the Bledisloe Cup.
For their part, though. I reckon the Wallabies will believe they are up to the challenge of winning at Eden Park. They will bring their ball-in-hand game. It is a modern game that suits the talents of this Wallabies squad. It offers, in my opinion, the best chance of a victory.
Of course, the All Blacks are generally much better the second time around.
But the Wallabies have their best chance in years of defeating a hoodoo that has to be eclipsed sooner rather than later.