There is no greater wake-up call for any All Black team than being beaten by Australia. This particular wake-up call was very loud and definite.
It revealed what might either be a mid-year malaise or an alarming eclipse of the daylight between the two teams that we have grown accustomed to in recent times.
We probably won’t know the answer to that until next weekend, by which time a very angry Steve Hansen will have taken them to hell and back mentally and physically.
If the Wallabies can win in Auckland then they should be perfectly capable – in mind as well as body – of winning the World Cup.
History shows that every loss New Zealand suffers is rapidly turned into a reinvention exercise, and the loss in Sydney is certainly going to precipitate some reinvention. It brought with it some serious questions for coach Hansen, the biggest being the realisation that Sonny Bill Williams may not be the match winner so many expected him to be.
In Sydney, Williams was exposed as hesitant, bumbling, and when it came to option-taking, a worrying liability. Against a clever, all-smothering defence he looked lost well before injury mercifully removed him from the game. The English and the French will have watched that sluggish performance with a surge of delight, realising Williams isn’t the wunderkind they may have thought.
But the exposure of Sonny Bill wasn’t the only worry. The quality of the All Blacks’ close-in defence was appalling at times, with players tripping over each other in trying to plug holes being driven by Wallaby forwards around the fringes.
Admittedly the Australian pack were exceptional all over the park. I can’t remember the last time the Wallabies forwards fronted up so decisively at the set pieces. Far from wilting in the last quarter, they just kept getting better and it was galling as a New Zealander to almost see expressions of resignation on the faces of the All Blacks toward the end. This match marked a further deterioration in ball carrying and cleaning out from the Samoa and South Africa Tests.
The gamble taken by coach Michael Cheika to play both openside tearaways – Michael Hooper and David Pocock – may not have worked had it not been for the immense contribution made by the Wallaby tight five. On the night that ploy worked. The frustration of Richie McCaw, time after time, was palpable. McCaw actually played very well, but one thief against two became a lopsided contest.
Part of the problem here – and this is another of the great worries for New Zealand – is that the All Black tight forwards simply couldn’t hang on to the ball in the building up of phases, and a potentially weak Wallaby inside back combination was rarely under any pressure.
When they were they looked very vulnerable, and it was a major failure on the part of the New Zealand loosies, particularly Kieran Read who produced the worst performance I have ever seen from him, that let Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley off the hook time and again. Who knows what might have happened had Will Genia and Quade Cooper been there and given that much latitude.
The All Black backs are going to have to deal with mad rushing defences from here on right through the World Cup, and if their passing and option-taking doesn’t improve dramatically the team is going to have to rely on game breakers to get them through.
The trouble is many of their established game breakers are running on three cylinders. Julian Savea seems to have decided to be Mr Anonymous at the moment. The midfield looks short of real pace, something that the return of Ma’a Nonu won’t improve greatly.
Naturally, Steve Hansen says this is the right time to have a downer. But with so many key players currently on auto-pilot, New Zealanders will be hoping that Eden Park will weave its customary magic and bring the All Blacks to life.
It doesn’t pay to let Wallaby teams become too confident. We’ve seen in the past that leads to a tendency for them to win World Cups.