First of all, congratulations to the Springboks, who came away the strongest from the Rugby Championship and deservedly so.
South Africa are in threatening form leading into the World Cup, with a strong forward pack, options clicking in the back line and something that you just can’t buy in rugby, which is blistering pace on the wing. World be warned.
Of course, the Wallabies deserve a slow clap for finally showing what is possible if you have discipline, grit and execution. It is not often you see New Zealand come third on a table but all of a sudden the All Blacks look a little venerable and aren’t our Kiwi friends losing it.
It is always good to see that New Zealanders act exactly like Australians do when they lose. They blame the ref, blame the cheating other team and generally just freak out like a toddler being denied a Mars bar by their mum at the supermarket check-out.
But as good as Saturday’s win was, there is winning and there is winning. The real test is the fabled fortress of Eden Park and no Wallabies fan needs to be reminded about the stats.
Michael Cheika is smart enough to know that the end game is breaking the Eden Park drought and giving this group of players an invaluable boost to their confidence before Rugby’s biggest show.
Now, back to the win on Saturday, I want to put something to bed – the red card there has been a lot of talk about. Too much talk.
For those of you who doubt the decision, the ref could not have been clearer on the night – shoulder and elbow with force direct to the head and neck. If you haven’t seen the rules lately, then let me tell you this is a clear-cut red card.
You may argue about the force, but a 117 kilogram man falling into the back of your neck has inherent force just because of gravity. Add to that any motion and, yes, it’s dangerous.
Although the hit was a bit soft, the game has been very clear about the rules regarding these situations, and been reasonably consistent with its no-tolerance policy – which it should be.
Rugby is a game with inherent risk and in a world where safety is so much of a priority – especially for younger players and their watchful parents – then the game needs to be shown to be actively trying to reduce that risk.
The onus is on the player to have the correct technique. If you don’t and you hit the head directly with force, then it’s red. In 1989, that was play on. In 2019, it is not.
As a man who has had his neck broken, I know just how little it takes to cause serious damage. Correct call – move on.
Now that we are done with that unpleasantness, let’s get to the players. Take a bow Nic White and James O’Connor, but especially White, who has carried his European form and even escalated it when playing for the Wallabies. He is a rounded player and this willingness to test the defence with snipes and pop passes was critical.
It has been too easy for teams to spread their defences out from the ruck against the Wallabies in the past few years. This is because they knew they weren’t going to be tested in and around the ruck, which makes the expansive game the Wallabies pride themselves on that much more difficult to play.
The All Blacks had to give White the time of day and it fixed their feet creating space in the wide channels. With Nic White and Will Genia as the competing halfbacks, the Wallabies have some real depth in a key position.
Side note to Nic White – tackling is more effective than begging the ref for a decision.
Now to O’Connor, the best thing about his game was how composed and unselfish he was. Acting as a ball player in the wide channels extended the reach and effectiveness of the Wallabies attack, but it was his willingness to distribute which was good to see.
In the past, O’Connor would have backed himself to get over the line when a situation presented itself like the one he found himself in at the 68-minute mark on Saturday night.
The Wallabies were up 33 to 19, O’Connor on the outside shoulder of Richie Mo’unga with 11 metres to the try line and space galore outside him. Six years ago, he would have 100 times out of 100 gone for the glory himself, but showing his growth, he shifts it to Reece Hodge to be sure.
But one game does not maketh a man and although O’Connor has now had a taste of redemption, he cannot let off and needs to bring that composure for every game in the gold jersey.
Another call-out to Samu Kerevi for being a human wrecking ball. He is the type of player that makes people scared when they see him running at them and for good reason, as Beauden Barrett can attest to.
Points also go to Michael Hooper, who was everywhere, Tolu Latu, who was more than solid, and Reece Hodge, who had one of his best games in gold. Just about every Wallaby player deserves a pat on the back because it was truly a team effort.
Seeing the Wallabies forwards weather the storm the All Blacks were conjuring at the breakdown was a sight for sore eyes as was just the overall lack of errors. I can’t remember seeing a game with so few Wallabies errors in the past 15 years.
My man of the match, however, goes to the Perth crowd. It is amazing to see a sold-out crowd for a rugby union game, which should be a lesson to fans. A large, vocal home crowd has an impact on the game. Any player will tell you that playing in front of their vocal home supporters makes a tangible difference. Get out and support, people!
Next Saturday shapes as an interesting game. For all the fanfare, nothing much has changed. We know the All Blacks will not give up and we know that they will play much better this time around.
The Wallabies need to remain focused and the coaching staff have to set the right tone with players to remind them that the job isn’t half done – it’s not done at all until you win in Auckland.
Now comes the question of what will the Wallabies selectors do? Most people would say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and they are right, everyone in the team deserves to keep their position for next week.
But Cheika still has his eyes on the World Cup too, and to win a World Cup you need a full squad of players who know their role and have had time in the middle. There will be injuries and players will need to step up.
Cheika sent a message to other Wallabies selectors Michael O’Connor and Scott Johnson in the post-match conference on Saturday.
“I’d like to think that anyone going in (to the selection meeting) understands (and) is part of trying to build the squad and the mentality of the squad going forward,” the coach said.
It sounds like Cheika is looking to make some key changes on Saturday and I will bet that he knows that Michael O’Connor and Scott Johnson may take more of a copy-and-paste approach to Auckland.
Oh to be a fly on the wall at that meeting, but whatever the outcome of the team selection you can bet both teams will be up for it on Saturday.
May the best (most Australian) team win.