The second Bledisloe Cup Test proved to be a case of same old, same old for the Wallabies, as a promising result in Sydney was followed up by a crushing defeat at their old bogey ground, Eden Park.
Last year it was by 31 points, this year 28. Both matches saw the All Blacks at their dominant best.
But there was one facet to this match that was remarkable considering the bloated scoreline: the All Blacks made 28 kicks out of hand, according to ESPN. The Wallabies kicked the pill 18 times. Yet the margin between the two teams was four converted tries.
Australians aren’t the biggest fans of kicking. Michael Cheika has modelled his Waratahs around aggressive forward play, and an offloading game that seeks to make the most of possession. Wallaby fans do not have too many fond memories of Robbie Deans’ tenure as the head coach, with the oft-used criticism that “they kick too much”, but Saturday’s game showed us once again that a smart kicking strategy can work wonders for a team.
The All Blacks’ gameplan reminded me of two matches from the last decade.
One was the Rugby World Cup Pool D match between Ireland and Argentina in 2007. Ireland had to win with a bonus point and deny the Pumas a bonus point to qualify for the knockouts, after having lost to France and failing to impress versus Georgia or Namibia.
What followed was a tactical masterclass from the Pumas as they monstered the Irish at the set-piece and at the breakdown, while maestro Juan Martin Hernandez controlled the game from fly-half – he had the ball on a string.
The Pumas won by 30-15. It was one of the most commanding displays from a fly-half at a Rugby World Cup match, and ‘El Mago’ had booted Ireland out of the World Cup.
The other was the 2009 Tri Nations match between the Springboks and the All Blacks, where New Zealand were on the receiving end of a spanking thanks largely to the boot of Morne Steyn. He scored all 31 points in a 31-19 victory, and the Springboks completed a 100 per cent record over the All Blacks that year.
This match was a turning point, it could be said, in the All Blacks’ quest to regain the Webb Ellis trophy, as they understood the benefits of a shrewd kicking game.
Since that season, the All Blacks have developed one of the most formidable kicking strategies on the planet. In Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Dan Carter and even Ma’a Nonu, they have a remarkable battery of kickers who possess a wide range of kicks to beat the opposition. Nonu is perhaps the epitome of the All Blacks’ metamorphosis, as he has in recent seasons added that facet of the game to his role as a bulwarking centre.
At Eden Park, their skills were on full display. They started off a bit shakily, as they kicked nearly every possession away to maximise territorial gain. Perhaps this was down to the nervousness engendered by the Sydney result. The plan wasn’t really working, as in Israel Folau the Wallabies have the best high-ball specialist in world rugby, and the fullback was lapping up every up-and-under that came his way.
Soon, the All Blacks understood that they would have to alter their strategy, and they identified Quade Cooper as the chink in the Wallabies’ armour. Carter, who was in sublime form, sent a few kicks his opposite number’s way, at least two of which Cooper fumbled. It was really good stuff from DC, Cooper however did not have his best night.
The first try was crucial to settling the All Black’ nerves. And what an inspired play it was too. Carter rolled back the years with his step on James Horwill and Dane Coles proved a suspicion that I’ve had that he may just be the fastest forward in world rugby at the moment.
The opening period of the second half settled the game though. This was essentially a 60-minute Test match, with the rest being garbage time after the contest was long over. The first 10 minutes of the second half were when the All Black kicking strategy paid off the most, with the Wallabies camped in their own half, and not helped by some poor kicks.
People have lambasted Cooper, and while the criticism is justified to a certain extent, one thing that has gone unnoticed is how two poor decisions from Matt Toomua were responsible for the carnage from minutes 47 to 57.
With Australia camped near their 40-metre line (this was as far as they could get with ball in hand in that period) Toomua stood far too deep from the ruck and then gave a nothing kick which was neither far enough nor contestable enough and just invited Julian Savea on the counter-attack.
New Zealand’s line speed was fantastic, but the Wallabies were not helped by Nic White’s ponderous service from halfback. A blueprint to beating the All Blacks would be to slow their ball down, not your own.
Two phases later, Nehe Milner-Skudder (who came up with the two most decisive plays of this game) stepped through a hole and we all know what happened next.
Then with the Wallabies playing with just 14 men, Toomua had another brain fade as he attempted a poor cross-kick from the New Zealand 40-metre line. Neither Adam Ashley Cooper nor Scott Fardy were ready for this, and Milner-Skudder pounced again. The youngster’s pop pass from the ensuing ruck to the uncharacteristically slow-to-arrive Aaron Smith was almost as crucial to the try being scored as the quick hands then displayed by the forwards in the midfield.
The game was finished.
As Allanthus noted in his wrap of the game, the All Blacks had built up enough momentum by the second period that they were bound to produce a moment of magic, like Milner-Skudder’s, to win the game. The Wallabies, and Toomua and Cooper in particular, abetted the All Blacks’ push for victory.
A good lesson to be learnt by the Wallabies is that your kick is only as good as its chase, thus criticising a team because it kicks poorly is missing the point in a way. The All Blacks during Steve Hansen’s reign have followed up every kick with a brilliant chasing pack. This puts pressure on the opposing team and you get territorial gain, along with opportunities to counter-attack off a poor return kick. The All Blacks are experts at this.
Cheika would do well to consider honing this aspect of the Wallabies’ game, especially since Wales and England would be taking notes, and have very good kickers of their own.
What did you make of the All Blacks’ tactics? And is there a faster forward than Dane Coles?