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If you haven’t seen Saturday’s third Bledisloe Cup match in Yokohama and know only of the 37-20 scoreline, you’d deduce that the match followed a similar pattern to so many of those during the now 16-year reign of the All Blacks.
And you’d be correct. Long periods of pressure applied by the Wallabies, too often released at a vital moment through poor option-taking (Bernard Foley’s sideline pop-up kick to Israel Folau), hands of concrete (Izack Rodda and Dane Haylett-Petty) and ill-discipline (Tolu Latu).
This was counterbalanced by periods of indifference by the All Blacks, studded with moments of sheer brilliance. The set-piece try to Beauden Barrett was one of the best-conceived and executed moves seen in Test rugby in recent memory, isolating a flying Rieko Ioane on Will Genia, striking a dagger at the heart of the Wallabies’ convoluted defensive system.
The class gap between the two sides remains, and was manifested in a couple of ways. Firstly, the All Blacks’ scrum was dominant throughout – covering both sets of front-rowers – and was responsible for an easy detach and plant try for Keiran Read, and for Latu losing his composure.
Secondly, note also the way in which the All Blacks moved the ball for Liam Squire’s opening try, where the ‘back door’ pass from Scott Barrett only came after it looked certain that the collision point would be Codie Taylor flat on the gain-line – the deception and crispness of the passing putting Squire outside of Kurtley Beale’s shoulder and into the space beyond his flailing arms.
By contrast, the Wallabies’ ‘second man’ plays were transparent and guileless, with the pass to the running player often being made too deep, and the subsequent wide pass too often not being to the advantage of the receiver. Unfortunately for them, this is not an unfamiliar tale.
But in their separate ways, without the Bledisloe Cup being at stake, both teams will have taken plenty of benefit from this match.
Yes, the Wallabies were beaten again, but this was a performance that threw more to the second half in Salta than the first, and should provide a sound springboard for the upcoming matches against Wales, Italy and England.
Captain Michael Hooper had by far his strongest match since his return from a hamstring injury, and both locks led the way for a forward pack that was keen to carry the ball more directly than in recent times.
The Wallabies’ goal-line defence was committed and strong, and gone was the aimless kicking of their most recent Test in South Africa. Yes, it was another loss, and the 2018 record of 3-7 makes for uncomfortable reading, but there was enough shown to warrant the reserving of an updated judgment until after this tour is completed.
After a long injury lay-off, Samu Kerevi’s first act was to embarrass Anton Lienert-Brown, and while Michael Cheika continues to play musical chairs with his outside back selection and positioning, Kerevi did enough to be one of the first names inked in for Cardiff in a fortnight’s time.
For the All Blacks, either a 40-point romp or a loss would have served them poorly. This was the best of both worlds, a resolute opponent well in the game for long periods, with opportunity to stretch the legs when the right opportunity presented itself, as for Barrett’s try, and the final one, to Ioane, after what is quickly becoming a Richie Mo’unga trademark, his incisive straight running.
With Ben Smith going so well on the wing, Steve Hansen may have stumbled upon a goldmine – the ability to shoehorn all of the scoring power of Barrett, Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie into the same match-day 23.
The All Blacks also got much-needed miles into the legs of Brodie Retallick and Nepo Laulala, and the point of difference offered by TJ Perenara defending aggressively around the edge of the ruck represents a growing threat to Aaron Smith’s incumbency.
Both sides also achieved their objective of familiarising themselves with Japan, with the Wallabies, there in person, no longer having to lean on George Smith for advice on taxi-driver etiquette.
Wallabies disbelievers might make the obvious quip that there isn’t much point to scoping out Yokohama Stadium in advance if you’re no hope of making the World Cup final anyway. But in terms of all-round preparation, including cultural orientation, I’d suggest that both the Wallabies and All Blacks have already stolen a march on their opponents ahead of next year’s big dance.
The Wallabies will need every advantage they get, particularly as they risk being embarrassed by their pool opponent Fiji, who are presently benefitting from Australia’s largesse in allowing them to not only participate in, but win, the National Rugby Championship.
In what was a highly enjoyable final, featuring brutal defensive hits from both sides, the Drua proved too strong for Queensland Country, winning 36-26, and sending the 6500 strong crowd – and themselves – into raptures.
Any plans for a drawn out, formal presentation of the trophy went out the window as captain Mosese Voka and his team snaffled the ‘toast rack’ within seconds of the final whistle – but the joy was so infectious, nobody seemed to mind too much.
The Drua found a perfect balance for the conditions and their opponent, balancing their running flair with a brutal pick and go game. One try, to lock Albert Tuisue, came after a marathon 23 hit-ups – at times attackers and defenders resembling an obstinacy of sumo wrestlers slugging it out in close quarters.
Queensland Country were a worthy finalist and left nothing on the Lautoka pitch. And in what was a promising sign for the Reds ahead of next year’s Super Rugby season, fly-half Hamish Stewart played with assuredness, tactical awareness and no little courage in what looked to be a ‘coming of age’ match.
In this respect, the NRC this season – more than any other – has provided a proving ground for emerging players, looking to make the transition into Super Rugby, and a worthy avenue for any number of players outside of the current Wallabies squad, to keep playing high-level rugby.
Of course, those same benefits accrue to Fiji as well, and Rugby Australia can only hope that they don’t come at the expense of providing John McKee and his Fijian side with an upset victory in Sapporo next September.
South Africa’s Currie Cup final proved to be an ‘old-school’ affair, the Sharks deservedly taking the title 17-12, keeping Western Province scoreless at home.
In the Mitre 10 final at a wet Eden Park, Canterbury’s clinical professionalism and how they built a 17-0 lead seemed at odds with how they switched off and conceded two tries from quickly tapped penalties. This allowed the home side to eventually claw back to 26-26 with seven minutes to play.
The final stanza was a thriller, with Auckland hammering away at the Canterbury line, their ball control impressive but their allergy to a point-blank drop goal attempt – a typical New Zealand rugby malaise – less so.
The home side had enough momentum and self-belief, however, to seal it in extra time, 40-33, and send their vocal supporters home happy in the knowledge that Auckland rugby has finally turned a corner. Let’s hope players and fans alike bring the same passion to Super Rugby in 2019.
One player to catch the eye in the raucous aftermath was hooker (and newly named Maori All Black) Robbie Abel, who backed up a great Mitre 10 with another strong showing. With the Drua and the All Blacks getting the job done against Queensland Country and the Wallabies, one could argue that this made a beaming Abel, along with Winx, the only Aussie winners on the day.
Anyone who has owned a racehorse knows what an achievement it is to get one to the races, let alone to have it win – any race, anywhere. It is almost impossible to comprehend how one horse can win the Cox Plate – Australia’s heavyweight championship of racing – in four successive years. And to do so in a manner that seemed so effortless.
For non-racing people, in rugby years, that’s like the All Blacks winning the Bledisloe Cup for… hang on a minute, let’s not go there!