No, you’re not dreaming. This isn’t an hallucination. The Wallabies put on 47 points against the All Blacks, won the game and have a genuine chance of bringing home the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002.
Yes this feels strange, but don’t fight it. The Wallabies played well and played well for pretty much a full game. There will, of course, be talk about the red card and how the All Blacks are in a form funk but don’t let that take away from the performance on Saturday night.
Amongst the celebrations and – let’s face it – the shock, what did we learn about the men in gold?
The difference some confidence makes
It’s a pretty obvious thing to say but it was so clear that the Wallabies play better when they feel some confidence in each other and in their game plan. In the latter stages of the game they were playing some great counter-attacking rugby where they backed themselves in some potentially tricky situations.
A prime example was when Nic White gathered a kick from the All Blacks on the Wallabies’ try line with 12 minutes left. Instead of kicking to touch, he passed inside to Kurtley Beale, who then saw some space, backed himself and made some good distance with ball in hand. He ran with support in mind and didn’t run away from his team-mates and the Wallabies ended up making great ground down field – and a minute later, Reece Hodge was in for his second try of the night.
Of course it helps being in the lead and having a one-man advantage but the Wallabies played the whole game with a sense of self belief and trust that we haven’t seen for quite a while. Decision-making was better, offloads weren’t forced, handling errors were rare and the performance was consistently high.
It’s critical that this confidence doesn’t become arrogance in upcoming matches but it was exciting to see a Wallabies side play like this and long may it continue.
Is O’Connor the missing piece of the centre puzzle?
James O’Connor made his return to the starting line-up against the All Blacks and he impressed. He didn’t do anything outrageous or rip the Kiwis to pieces but he made several important contributions and fitted in with the Wallabies’ evolving defence systems.
There was something more mature about this performance from O’Connor that caught the eye. He still has great hands – as demonstrated with Reece Hodge’s first try – and he regularly cropped up in the first receiver position allowing the team another option if they needed it.
There will be bigger questions asked of him in defence but it was a fine return to starting duties.
The Wallabies have found their centre pairing
The previous Kerevi-Kuridrani combination was exciting when you considered the brute power at the Wallabies’ disposal. However, breaks that Samu Kerevi would make were rarely turned into tries and Tevita Kuridrani never lived up to expectation.
It’s only one game but Kerevi and O’Connor seem to be able to deliver a far more compelling partnership with the right combination of a power running who can break the line and a playmaker who can bring quality to distribution in the outer channels or when supporting a break away.
With ball in hand, these two look good and it will be interesting to see what happens when they don’t have as much ball to play with and when they are forced to defend a lot more.
With Christian Lealiifano playing well and being able to put Kerevi in space, this pairing is looking like the most promising we’ve seen for a while.
Speaking of Kerevi, this guy is in some great form this year and the Wallabies will be praying that this continues into the World Cup.
His run down the sideline to set up White’s try was devastating and he has become such a threat that defences will be spending hours figuring out how to stop him. Excitingly, he can also act as a great distraction, pinning defenders and opening up space for those outside.
Will Genia might be getting nervous
For far too long the Wallabies have had an issue where the gap between the top two No.9 choices was just so big. Nick Phipps always brought energy but he was just not good enough to be a genuine threat on the international stage and teams would often gain an advantage when he came on in those crucial final 20 to 30 minutes.
But with White, not only has that gap become smaller, but the pecking order has almost reversed. Genia has had a lock on the No.9 shirt for years – but right now, White deserves to start with Genia bringing valuable experience later in the game.
White’s sniping in the early stages of the game not only helped the Wallabies gain valuable metres but also forced the defenders close to the ruck to stay near the breakdown for fear of leaving some space for White to exploit. This then gave the back line some more space to play with and kept the All Blacks’ defence having to work hard and never being able to settle.
One frustration was when he chose to complain to the ref about a forward pass to Rieko Ioane instead of tackling the Kiwi winger and then asking the ref to check the pass. But the plus points far outweighed the negatives in this game and White deserves to keep the starting spot.
Keeping hold of the ball
There was a debate off the back of the last couple of Rugby Championship games about how much ball the Wallabies were kicking away. For a side that has long been known for its ball-handling skills, it was frustrating to see them kicking the ball back to the opposition so often.
Against the All Blacks, though, this changed dramatically. The Wallabies kicked half as much in Perth as they did against the Pumas and trusted themselves with the ball in hand. They denied the dangerous NZ back three the ball and the kicks they did put in were often competitive when they went back down to ground.
Combined with the Wallabies’ ability to retain the ball far better than in previous weeks, this meant that the opposition were starved of possession and it’s hard to score many points when you don’t have the ball.
It’s important that the Wallabies don’t lose the ability to kick as it is a crucial skill in the game but it’s great to see them focusing on running with the ball and retaining it rather than giving it away so often.
New defensive system still to prove its mettle
The Wallabies continued to use the same defensive structure as they did against the Pumas where they often won’t rush up but wait for the attack to come to them. There had been concerns that against the All Blacks this passive approach would get them into trouble and there were certainly times when the Kiwis were able to unlock the Wallabies.
However, this system didn’t lead to the errors of the past when a disorganised rush defence left loads of gaps.
To turn this new style of defence into something a bit more dangerous, the Wallabies need to work on their ability to steal possession back and reduce the number of missed tackles. The All Blacks only had 35% possession, but during these periods, the Wallabies missed almost 30% of their tackles.
In the second half, when the All Blacks were down to 14 men, they were still able to put together over 20 phases in one passage of play and score off the back of it.
The wingers also need to get their roles clear and stick to them. Too often they come in and leave gaps and overlaps outside them. This was the case with the All Blacks’ first try when Jack Goodhue had acres of space to attack down his wing.
The Wallabies need to take another step forward in their defence, but if you’re going to miss almost 30% of your tackles, then keeping hold of the ball like they did is a pretty sensible game plan. In games where they don’t have so much possession, missing that many tackles is going to hurt them.
Need some more pace at the ruck
During the first half, the Wallabies’ ruck wasn’t as quick as it needed to be and the pace they were able to put on their attack was impacted. The All Blacks did a great job of attacking the ball at the breakdown and the Wallabies struggled to get the ball back into White’s hands too many times, which led to the visitors either being able to steal the ball, get a penalty or at the very least get their defence organised.
Things improved in the second half but that was partly because of the red card. The Wallabies need to practise getting more speed into their rucks and giving White the ball that split second quicker. With his sniping skills, this will make him even more of a threat and allow the backs to take another step towards becoming a scary attacking unit.
Can’t afford to miss out on good opportunities moving forward
The Wallabies piled the points on the All Blacks and that should not be ignored. Yes, they had a one-man advantage for half of the game but they put the New Zealanders to the sword and punished them over and over.
However, in the first half, there were a couple of important moments where the Wallabies had created great opportunities to score only to walk away without the try. Within the space of just a couple of minutes, the Wallabies failed to give a number of passes that most likely would have led to seven points, or at least five.
The team should be commended for creating these chances in the first place as they had the All Blacks on the back foot, but they have to get more clinical and make teams pay the first time they make a mistake.
Next week really matters
Of course, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here. This is one game and the key now is the next Test, and the next one after that and after that. But there were a number of aspects of the Wallabies’ play tonight that were genuinely exciting.
Next week really matters. If the Wallabies can win in New Zealand, then that will be a huge boost to this squad as they start to pack for Japan. Even a loss with a strong performance will be important. But if they go backwards in these areas where they’ve shown improvement over the past couple of games then that could damage them in the lead up to the World Cup. Confidence can be a fragile thing and the Wallabies are a confidence team.
The good news is that the Wallabies can definitely win at Eden Park but that’s not good enough. They need to actually do it.