Well, I didn’t see that coming.
Like most Wallabies supporters last week, I was hopeful of a greatly improved performance in Perth and though I can’t admit to any fears per se, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like the dominant 47-26 win they delivered.
It’s impossible to overstate what this win over a surprisingly off New Zealand side has done for the general feeling within Australian rugby. Over the course of 80 minutes, you could almost hear the relief giving way to a feeling of sheer happiness. It’s just a totally different feeling to the nervous anxiety we were experiencing prior to kick-off.
It was a wonderful win, everyone saw that. And with the win comes a few little things we know to be true.
One win does not make Australia RWC favourites
For the most part, I think everyone knows this and accepts that one very good win is just that: one very good win.
But there is no question that a Wallabies win over New Zealand, and especially the manner in which they won, will make other countries sit up and take notice. Especially, say, countries like South Africa and Italy and Namibia and Canada, who will face the All Blacks in Pool B. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, I can imagine, will have this game replaying on loop up until September 21.
The bookies will almost certainly have wound Australia in further by now, and likewise, the chest-puffing over-confident ‘Australia won’t make the quarter-finals’ type of commentary from recent weeks will subside.
That perhaps is the biggest effect of this win for the Wallabies. It has changed perceptions about them, both from fans of other countries and especially among Wallabies supporters, with everyone recognising that this is team on the rise.
Even the negative types who are overly prone to talking things down would have to concede that, just as Wallabies supporters know full well that…
New Zealand will bounce back
This feels like an obvious statement too, but I make this point simply because I don’t believe the All Blacks are a team in decline after one loss any more than the Wallabies are RWC favourites after one win.
And history backs this up, too. You only have to look at their losses to see the reaction.
We know how they reacted to the Bledisloe 1 loss in 2015. A week after losing to Ireland in Chicago in 2016, they put 68 on Italy, and then beat Ireland three tries to none a week after that. France copped a month’s worth of stewing on the Brisbane Bledisloe loss in 2017, and after South Africa’s win for the ages in Wellington last year, Argentina bore the brunt of the reaction a week later.
Steve Hansen has been heavily critical of his team, and I can’t imagine he’ll allow another sub-par performance in consecutive weeks. And nor would the players want to become the first bunch of All Blacks since 2011 to lose two on the trot.
The Wallabies’ tight five might be set
I could’ve quibbled over Tolu Latu’s inclusion over Folau Fainga’a in the starting side in Perth, but there’s no denying the impact Latu had around the ground on Saturday night. Allan Ala’alatoa coming into tight-head made a big difference too, but the starting front row worked beautifully as a unit, as did the second row of Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold.
It worked so well, in fact, that along with Fainga’a, James Slipper, and Taniela Tupou off the bench, it kind of feels like the Wallabies tight five options can now be locked in. It’s hard to see anyone coming in from outside that group of players offering more than the incumbents.
Latu and Fainga’a probably remain a coin-flip proposition as to who starts, but that’s a much smaller quibble now.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto can be a very good blindsider. But…
If Saturday night wasn’t Salakaia-Loto’s best game for the Wallabies, it surely can’t be far off. But there were still a couple of areas of his game that require attention.
It still feels like he’s off the pace when it comes to attacking breakdown work, and this was evident through the first half. His ball-carrying numbers show as many as most forwards, yet it’s hard to remember many of them getting past the gain line. And he seems prone to popping up early from scrum contests.
It was a much-improved performance from the previous week, and he probably does now have his nose in front of Luke Jones as a blindside option. But to me at least, he still feels a way off becoming a Scott Fardy type of No.6.
Samu Kerevi remains in great form. But…
Another block-busting night out for Kerevi, and his numbers made for pretty solid reading: 20 carries, five defenders beaten, three clean breaks, one try assist. Seven passes and an offload, too.
But just as discussions last week produced numbers that went a good distance to highlighting Kerevi’s efficiency of disposal, Saturday night showed his issues are not when he does pass or offload the ball, but rather it’s the times that he should and doesn’t.
Yet again, there were numerous occasions through the game where opportunities were missed because Kerevi either didn’t pass early enough, didn’t pass at all, or took the ball into contact and didn’t or couldn’t offload. Test defences are better than Super Rugby defences. International centres can’t just rely on their physicality to offload as they can at provincial level.
When James O’Connor dropped into first receiver, Kerevi remained a threat because O’Connor looked for him. Contrast this with post-match comments the previous fortnight that the Wallabies couldn’t get Tevita Kuridrani into the game.
This, of course, now means…
O’Connor definitely has a midfield role to play
I stand by my position last week that O’Connor had done nothing to deserve the hype he’d been receiving after one 12-minute cameo against Argentina, and the promotion to the starting side for Bledisloe 1 wasn’t based on anything he’d done the previous week.
But I was open-minded he could have an impact. And that impact was highlighted pretty bloody quickly on Saturday night!
O’Connor’s presence in midfield unquestionably adds a new dimension to the Wallabies’ attack, a dimension that neither Kerevi nor Kuridrani have. O’Connor switching between inside and outside centre was in the mould of Conrad Smith and even Ryan Crotty – a wider attacking option very much in line with the second five-eighth description used over the ditch.
And it will be a rough call on Kuridrani, but while Kerevi holds onto this physical vein of form, it’s hard to see how the big Brumbies No.13 fits into the midfield picture.
Nic White might be the best thing to happen in Will Genia’s final season in gold
Just re-watch Genia’s 11 minutes, and how he played that same sort of game from the bottom of the ruck that ensured the New Zealand defenders remained engaged for the rest of the game.
And because of the damage White had done for the previous 69 minutes, Genia came on with a licence to play the rugby that he plays best. Long may that continue.
Michael Hooper knows where the posts are
It’s a little thing, but significant in the broader scheme of that little rugby carnival coming up later in the year, but the Wallabies are happy to point at the posts again, and it’s been of great benefit in both wins over the last fortnight.
Christian Lealiifano’s six penalty attempts in two games – all converted – already represents 50 per cent more attempts than he took for the Brumbies across the whole Super Rugby season.
And after the Wallabies seemed allergic to taking the three last season, this is happy development with Bill Ellis on the horizon. It’s going to be needed.
Eden Park is not quite as daunting as it was last week
And this is undoubtedly the best outcome of the 47-26 win for the Wallabies and long-suffering supporters in the run-up to an Eden Park contest.
The history is still there and is unavoidable. But it’s now ripe for re-writing, perhaps more than ever.
The Wallabies’ sudden form and newfound confidence coupled with the new and unforeseen vulnerability around the All Blacks just means the narrative around the return bout in Auckland is completely different to what it was a few days ago.
And that makes for a very exciting week for rugby fans on both sides of the ditch.