It seems like just yesterday that we were waiting for the June Tests to begin, and now they’re almost over.
Indeed, at the end of the second Test matches only one series is alive, and that too was on the ventilator at one point.
So let’s take a look back at the big matches that took place this weekend.
New Zealand versus Wales
‘Golden Balls, Captain Fantastic and not-so-patchy Patchell.’
Heading into the game, it was not a question of whether Wales would lose, but by how many. They had picked themselves up from the disappointment of Eden Park to head to Waikato, where they were absolutely smashed by the Chiefs with their Brilliant Beaver and Japanese Haka. Plus with George North out for the tour, they had their backs against the wall.
And yet, here they were 10-10 at halftime, plucky as always. Through a combination of All Black inaccuracy and Welsh resilience, they somehow found a way to breach the All Black line, with Jonathan Davies first slicing through the defence, and then setting up Alun Wyn Jones in the corner with a looping pass to bring the Welsh back into it.
But such is the All Blacks’ ability that they only need to turn up the heat for a short period in the match to take the game away from their opponents. And the ones who stepped up were the usual suspects, with Kieran ‘I Can Offload Whenever I Want’ Read and ‘Dragon Slayer’ Beauden Barrett prominent in the All Black onslaught.
First Barrett sliced through Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies to put Ben Smith over for a try on his 50th Test, then he scored himself off a five-metre scrum, and then from another scrum Kieran Read took out two Welsh defenders to pop a pass to Aaron Smith who set up Waisake Naholo for a walk-in.
After Ardie Savea’s score in the 67th minute, the All Blacks had gone from 10-10 to 36-10 in a matter of 15 minutes. Game over.
However, Wales ensured that the scoreline did not get embarrassing like it did in midweek, as Liam Williams scored a fantastic 50-metre effort, followed by Jonathan Davies producing a wonderful don’t-argue on Seta Tamanivalu to bring some respectability to the scoreline.
Williams, who was shifted from fullback to right winger for this match, was fantastic throughout, with Wales only looking threatening once they shifted the ball out wide (they had trouble getting over the gain-line in midfield).
Matching him in his impressive efforts was his fullback replacement Rhys Patchell. Patchell had only played twice before for Wales in a largely second string side’s tour to Japan back in 2013, and was enjoying a round of golf with his mates when he got the call up. Yet he showed no signs of weariness or jet-lag and was unfazed by the occasion, making metres in attack and kicking well.
Last week I had highlighted how Wales’ inability to score on the cusp of half-time was a crucial moment, and this time the Welsh took the cue, drawing level right on the buzzer. That score came after two errors from the All Blacks, as first Malakai Fekitoa obstructed Dan Biggar with the least subtlety possible, and then Barrett kicked out on the full after Aaron Smith had passed back into the 22.
That gave the Welsh a lifeline, but whereas last week a try at half-time would have made the score 20-10, here the tally was merely half of that.
Which is why the period just after half-time became crucial to the outcome of the match as a whole. The Welsh started the second half just like they ended the first, and Liam Williams making a foray into the 22 but then chipping over the top when keeping it in hand would have been the more sensible option.
A rush of blood to the head perhaps, but it would prove to be costly, as within a minute the All Blacks had pushed the Welsh back to their own 22.
What followed was a period of frenetic attack and counter-attack, but a crucial moment in the match was when Sam Warburton intercepted a pass on his own 22 and streaked forward. From an All Black perspective, it was lucky that the only two people for the Welsh in this attack were Warburton and the otherwise excellent Toby Faletau, and if someone like Williams had been in support, the Welsh could have stolen one there.
As it happened, Faletau knocked on, and the opportunity was lost.
Another interesting decision by the referee that could have impacted the match was when Waisake Naholo took out Liam Williams in the air. The All Blacks had a penalty advantage, and Barrett put up a cross-field bomb for Naholo.
Williams got their first, and was taken out by the Fijian. Jaco Peyper had a look on the big screen, and reversed the penalty, but refrained from giving a yellow card only because Williams had “landed on his feet”.
The challenge looked reckless, and Williams was certainly in danger there. It was a similar incident to Jason Emery’s red card for taking out Willie Le Roux a few weeks back, but whereas that was a red card, this was only a penalty.
Should decisions be made only on the outcome of a particular incident, or should it be a matter of principle? I’ll leave that to you. I think the decision was right here, but it does make you think.
Finally, the two minutes of play that settled the game began when Wales lost the ensuing lineout after the Faletau knock on (the Welsh lineout was poor all game), and New Zealand swung it out wide.
Jonathan Davies drifted out just a little too much, or it could be said Jamie Roberts didn’t drift enough, and Beauden Barrett stepped through the gap. He beautifully passed to Ben Smith, who being the immaculate finisher that he is, was never going to be stopped as he didn’t need to break stride.
From the very next kickoff, Aaron Smith sensed the defence around the ruck was sparse, bamboozled Sam Warburton with a wonderful right foot step and sent the All Blacks on their way from their own 22 to the Welsh five-metre line.
Dan Biggar got held up by Sam Whitelock and Read, and from the resulting scrum, Read offloaded brilliantly to Smith just a metre away from the line (most others would have stretched out or recycled) and Barrett then went through the Roberts-Davies midfield again to make it 24-10. Game over.
Australia versus England
While England won the match last week, it escaped no one’s notice that they were exposed out wide by the Wallabies, as they conceded four tries. Paul Gustard, England’s new defence coach, had to ensure his team were not as vulnerable to the Wallaby attack this week. And boy, did they step up.
With the Wallabies seemingly intent on scoring only by crossing the whitewash, England had to withstand a huge barrage of Wallaby attacks. The first major onslaught was right before half time. England had a scrum a minute out from half time, but Billy Vunipola followed a different timekeeper to Craig Joubert, and kicked the ball out before the buzzer.
It was a gift to the Wallabies, but one they could not take full advantage of. They tried and tried, for 20 phases in fact, and once got to within a metre of the tryline, but the English would not relent.
England did concede a penalty advantage during this time, and indeed there was a period in the first half where it seemed they were teetering on the brink of a yellow card, but they managed to keep their discipline for the most part.
And that penalty advantage was wasted by the Wallabies as their 20 phase attack seemed to be advantage enough for Joubert. There was one occasion when Kerevi threw a wild one handed pass out wide to Dane Haylett-Petty when Joubert probably could have blown for the penalty, but at the end of the day, England escaped unscathed.
That barrage was just a precursor to what would follow in the second half, as England were under the cosh for almost three quarters of the time. Australia continually turned down the opportunity to kick for goal, and England just kept them out time and time again.
There was only one time when Joubert gave Dylan Hartley a warning for too many infringements, but overall England kept their discipline. It certainly reminded me of the South Africa versus Ireland Test the week before, where a one-dimensional attack met a dogged defence. There was only ever going to be one winner.
The statistics were mind-boggling. England made 182 tackles, to Australia’s 53. Yes England missed a few as well, but they scrambled bravely. Stuart Barnes while commentating on Sky Sports likened it to Agincourt – I wonder how a rugby pitch installed on the battlefield at Agincourt would have held up.
Probably not much worse than the one we got at AAMI Park on Saturday.
Leaving the hyperbole aside, seriously why was this Test match played at AAMI Park? Especially since most people expected the pitch to cut up so easily. Could they not have scheduled it at a different ground in Melbourne?
The ground has majorly been used for football and rugby league, and Rebels fans know very well how the pitch holds up. Plus its capacity is a good 17,000 less than Docklands Stadium (where the second British and Irish Lions Test match was held in 2013). The ARU seem to have realised their mistake, and have warned AAMI Park of stripping it of its Test matches if the pitch does not improve.
I generally focus on crucial moments of the match here, and while I did refer to the period of play right before half time, I think singling out a particular moment in the second half would not be fair. Instead I want to focus on a particular issue – going for goal.
Yes, everybody loves to see tries being scored – even ones from rolling mauls (OK probably not them, unless your team is the one scoring) – but you have to understand that points do not come easily in Test match rugby, and so when you have the opportunity to score points, take it.
Now I’m not saying kicking to the corner is a bad thing, of course it isn’t. In fact, in last week’s article I spoke about how multiples of three do not work against multiples of seven. But that said, your decision is dictated by the scenario of the match.
If you are within striking range on the scoreboard, if you have a good goal kicker, the position of the penalty, the state of the opposition defence, they all factor in. And from the Wallabies’ point of view, the penalties that they turned down in the second half were borderline sacrilege. You just do not turn down such opportunities to score points.
Instead, they kicked to the corner, could not maul their way to the tryline like they did in the first half, and then were forced to try and pick apart the English defence, which was not going to stand down.
Over here, the Wallaby attack also deserves a mention in being as unimaginative as they could possibly be. England had done their homework on Folau, and ensured that he was never in a situation where he could run at a depleted defence, while Bernard Foley had an off-day (although we will never know how his day was off the kicking tee), and the only player who was looking dangerous apart from Folau, Samu Kerevi, was taken off for Luke Morahan with a quarter of the game left.
Contrast this to England, who have a dead-eye goal kicker and know how to use him. His first shot at goal was a bit ambitious and cannoned off the upright, but that was the only kick he missed in the match.
Whenever England got a penalty within shooting range, they went for the posts. It’s how they got back in the game in Brisbane, and it’s how they kept Australia away in Melbourne.
Another issue of note was of the Australian indiscipline. That first penalty I spoke of just now, was given for the silliest of reasons – Sekope Kepu pushing Maro Itoje at an Australian lineout.
We do know that Itoje is a bit of a big mouth, but that was a moment of madness, and it was right in front of the referee. The match flared up on other occasions in the first half as well, including an odd triple penalty that (correctly) went England’s way despite England committing two of the three offences.
It seems Australia confused physicality with ‘niggle’ and you could sense that they were rattled – their play lacked composure, and they were duly punished by England.
Talking smack, getting in your opponents’ heads, winning the mental battle, all traits of successful Aussie sports teams of the past. How ironic that they got undone in that very department this summer. Perhaps it’s the Aussie in exile who is to blame.
I’ll cover the Springboks versus Ireland Test match and look forward to Week 3 in the next part.