With the Bledisloe Cup missing for 14 years, bookmakers were quoting shorter odds for the return of Harold Holt to Australian shores than the return of the Cup.
A streak of 14 has now become 15 but, with an effort full of character, the Wallabies have finally raised hopes of a change in fortunes.
This was the perfect outcome for New Zealand. They won, but they got a contest – a real contest – that they were two minutes away from losing. While New Zealand fans aren’t so magnanimous to want the Wallabies to win, there was a sense of relief and delight post-match that the Cup has once again become contestable.
It was almost the perfect outcome for Australia. Failure to secure the final kick-off and Bernard Foley kicking into the uprights rather than inside them were obvious targets as reasons for the loss. However, in reality, this match was a necessary step along the pathway for the Wallabies before they next beat New Zealand – not the giant leap required for what would have surely been the greatest upset in Bledisloe Cup history.
The Wallabies performance built on the last 30 minutes of the Sydney Test – making a mockery of those who dismissed it as simply the All Blacks ‘switching off’. Nine tries in one and a half matches cannot be dismissed as ‘lucky’ or all due to poor play by New Zealand.
Admittedly, in this match the Wallabies still conceded five tries themselves, but only the uncharitable and agenda-driven would dispute that the All Blacks were made to work like Trojans to earn every one.
Ignore misguided calls that this was due to the Wallabies finally finding some ‘heart’. What they actually found was familiarity and comfort in working to a less complex defensive system, and players benefitting from some continuity in selection.
Instead of stationing wingers and centres out of their regular position in midfield, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley were made accountable for front-line defence. Taking a cue from the Lions, the Wallabies also improved their secondary defence, placing more bodies into areas of the pitch that in Sydney, had been gaping holes.
As a result the Wallabies, for the most part, controlled the midfield. Sonny Bill Williams made three handling errors in the first seven minutes, after which he was hardly sighted. Time and again Brodie Retallick found himself isolated behind the advantage line, and while he was good enough to retain control and reset, this was not the flowing attack the All Blacks were hoping for.
Unfortunately for Foley and Beale, despite their defensive heroics, both were severely punished for one error each – Foley failing to react to Beauden Barrett’s lightning dash to the blind-side for his 60th minute try, and Beale coming in on an already covered Scott Barrett to open a hole for Kieran Read to run into and set up the match-winner.
It is this detail at the margins that is the next step for the Wallabies that, once addressed, will start to deliver them wins instead of honourable losses.
The Wallabies’ next match – in Perth against South Africa – now shapes as pivotal. Before Saturday they were as popular as a butcher at a vegan convention, but the Wallabies clawed back precious goodwill in Dunedin. To ensure this isn’t wasted it is essential that they go on with the job against the Springboks and at least win at home, and then twice against the Pumas for good measure.
Whether they do this or not will be largely down to Michael Cheika. The rational, private Cheika must keep the defensive structure simple and maintain consistency in selection, to allow combinations and confidence to continue to develop. The histrionic, reactive Cheika must resist the temptation to let ambition get ahead of reality and to instinctively revert to introducing new players on a hunch or because they need game time.
Leadership remains a weakness. Michael Hooper will learn that a sarcastic comment to the referee isn’t becoming of a great Test captain, although Cheika’s victim mentality hardly sets an appropriate benchmark.
By contrast, the calm and authoritative leadership shown by Read, taking responsibility for winning the final kick-off, the manner in which his side worked the ball into space, and the clinical finishing touch added by TJ Perenara and Barrett, was worth the price of admission alone – no matter the heartbreak it delivered for the Wallabies.
Steve Hansen will of course be concerned that it came down to this. Winning a Test match from 0-17 down is something to be savoured but, as the match against Ireland showed last year in Chicago, there will be other days when early leads conceded to good sides can’t simply can’t be made up.
Damien McKenzie will learn from his mistake, (Israel Folau read the opening try perfectly) and questions will have been asked of Rieko Ioane as to why, with the fullback up in the line at second receiver, there was not even a semblance of cover from the blind-side winger.
Replacement prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi was exposed as lazy at his defensive post. He lost contact with Sam Whitelock for Will Genia’s try, and then repeated his mistake when Kurtley Beale scored. These are young players, learning the ropes in the mid-World Cup cycle, with the expectation of a dividend to be paid in the future, but a waiting South Africa will surely have taken note.
On the credit side Ioane was electric with the ball, and Nepo Laulala will be delighted with his contribution; although it hard to recall a scrum so dominant as this All Blacks’ one was, receiving no tangible benefit.
Referee Nigel Owens seemed unusually hesitant by his standards – not always in fluid agreement with himself or his assistants. There is a strong argument that he got three ‘big’ calls wrong – firstly, not awarding a penalty try to New Zealand when he penalised Ned Hanigan for blocking a pass to an unmarked Ioane on the try-line. Simply, if it was a penalty it had to be a penalty try.
Then in the 52nd minute, after a TMO review, he told the All Blacks, who believed that Retallick had scored, “I’m not seeing a grounding”. The obvious question was, ‘why then did you award a try in the first place if you couldn’t see it?’ With a supplementary question, ‘from the camera view from the sideline, what was that oval, white object sitting on the try-line with Retallick’s hands on it?’
Ignoring Cheika’s melodramatic call for card sanctions via his account of Retallick lifting Hanigan and dropping him dangerously (Hanigan at no stage was lifted off the ground), Owens surely should have found reason to penalise Retallick for continuing on with tipping Hanigan over when he didn’t need to, along with a reminder that he was sailing a little too close to the wind.
On the credit side, denying Ben Smith under the posts was a sound call, as was determining that Will Genia did not knock on before his long bust to set up Foley’s try. Then again, he might have pinged the excellent Sean McMahon for scooping the ball out of the middle row of that scrum with his hands. Seriously, who’d be a referee?
The start of the match was delayed 15 minutes due to lighting issues. At the time it felt a bit like the hangman leaving the prisoner waiting on the gallows while he finished his cuppa, but in reality it served to add to the theatre of what was one of the best Bledisloe Cup matches in recent memory.
If that helps to sell a few more tickets for the third rubber in Brisbane – as it should – it is welcome good news for the ARU who, in the meantime, have a very difficult weekend to negotiate in Perth.
There was lots of colour on display in Mendoza, where South Africa scored a comfortable 41-23 win. Yellow, and then red for serial recidivist Tomas Lavanini, although there seemed to be an element of him paying more for past sins, when TMO Ben Skeen talked referee Pascal Gauzere into believing that Lavanini hadn’t used his arms in a tackle, when a replay showed his left arm wrapped around the receiver.
Tangerine was also popular, although there is something not quite right about watching the Springboks play in a fluorescent strip. Which is probably part of the reason why they are.
Other highlights included a Puma try from their own kick-off, where no South African touched the ball, and a ten-point try, after Adries Coetzee sparked a minor diplomatic incident over the dead-ball line. Most amusing was the sight of Gauzere physically stopping Nicolas Sanchez running in to join the fight – did he think he was going to make things worse by falling on someone?
Congratulations to the New Zealand women’s side who won a thoroughly entertaining World Cup final 41-32 in Belfast. For the first half, England appealed as more organised on defence and attack, New Zealand taking an incredible 36 minutes to get the ball into the hands of their flying weapon Portia Woodman.
The Kiwis pulled the right tactical reign in the second half however, overpowering England with irrepressible pick-and-go, prop Toka Natua scoring three tries in the process. The standout however was No.8 Aroha Savage, uncannily reminiscent of Buck Shelford in his prime.
This was great rugby played in a great spirit; another reminder, as in Dunedin, that in these dark days when ‘good news’ stories for the sport are hard to find, the beauty of rugby still has the capability to transcend all of the nonsense that is occurring off the field.