It came out of the blue. England had already lost narrowly to the Wallabies and the Springboks, and it appeared a ‘blackwash’ awaited, with world champions New Zealand the last to visit Twickenham at the end of 2012.
The autumn campaign looked for all money like ending in failure.
But during the week’s build-up, head coach Stuart Lancaster told me that he could feel a special performance building against the grain. We had done our due diligence and felt we knew how to try and take on the All Blacks.
And so it proved. England delivered a standout 38-21 victory and suddenly all of the negative momentum was reversed. It also affected England palpably as a rugby nation. Optimism spread like wildfire – too quickly.
When we would watch games together, rugby supporters of every ilk queued up to shake Stuart by the hand, to slap him on the back – and occasionally, to whisper a few sage words of advice on selection matters.
Suddenly, Stuart Lancaster had hardly a moment to himself. That is what a win against the Kiwis can do for you.
Michael Cheika and his charges may be feeling something similar this week. The Wallabies’ 47-26 victory in Perth has rightly become a focus of national sporting celebration, following the high of Australia’s victory in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston.
Cheika will do well not to get too carried away, because a win of that magnitude can easily cause a real loss of perspective. Judgement can more readily become clouded by success. Failure jolts you awake.
England had to wait another four months, until March 16, 2013, for their bubble to burst in Cardiff, with Wales winning a Grand Slam decider by 30-3 in the Six Nations.
The Wallabies will not have to wait nearly as long, because the return match, at Eden Park, is only a few days away.
Cheika’s zeal will also be tempered by the fact that Australia beat a New Zealand team which played half the match with only 14 men, after Scott Barrett’s send-off just before halftime.
The Wallabies were winning by one point before the lock left the field, they went on to win the rest of the game by 34-14.
Barrett’s dismissal will rightly revive calls for the card system to be reviewed. While referee Jerome Garces was entirely correct according to the current protocol, a red card looked and felt wrong for an offence which occurs at every second contact situation in the game.
It was left to Gloucester and ex-Lions coach Johan Ackermann to provide the balanced perspective on Sky Sports:
“The law is there to protect the player, it’s a matter of player welfare, so we can’t blame the officials for implementing the rules.
“But if I put on my coaches’ hat, I do believe that there [should be] a certain amount of discretion in respect of intent. Was it a malicious act?
“There are ways around it. Why not a 20-minute card and a sanction following that, after the game has finished?”
It would have far better for the game immediately, and for rugby’s professional future in general, if Barrett could have seen orange (and been placed on report), rather than either yellow or red.
This should not detract from the most complete Wallaby performance in recent memory. Australia controlled the game, winning two-thirds of possession and three-quarters of the territory. They built twice as many rucks and forced the visitors to make 200 tackles.
The notion of forward dominance in the modern era depends far less on set-piece authority and far more on efficiency in all of the various contact scenarios. For every scrum or lineout at which Australia fed the ball, there were 11 breakdowns to be cleaned out.
Behind those numbers, the Wallabies had the ideal man to conduct the orchestra in the shape halfback Nic White. White played in a team, the Exeter Chiefs, who emphasize possession of the ball more than any other side in the UK, so is used to co-ordinating an attack building 100+ rucks per game.
It was a virtuoso performance by the man I first identified as a potential Wallabies contender at the beginning of 2018, a message reinforced at the end of the year.
White’s showing on Saturday was a consummate answer to all of those who saw only a player who kicked and niggled, and could not be improved by a stint in northern hemisphere rugby. That case is now firmly closed.
He has changed his style of play under the watchful stewardship of Exeter head coach Rob Baxter. He has become a better passer and improved his decision-making and leadership, to the point where he can be the attacking fulcrum of the teams in which he plays.
The scrum half’s facts and figures are revealing:
|Total||16 (18.2%)||68 (77.3%)||4 (4.5%)|
For a player who is supposed to be ‘only a kicker’, four kicks in 88 possessions is a tiny percentage. When White did put boot to ball, he did a lot of damage. His box kicks for Reece Hodge to chase were pinpoint-accurate:
When he felt the All Black backfield beginning to condense near the defensive line, White found the space in behind with precision:
White spotted that Kiwi left winger Rieko Ioane had moved upfield:
… and chipped a searching eight-iron into the space. On another day, that ball kicks back into the hands of the chasing Marika Koroibete instead of sitting up for Ioane.
White’s control of those potentially messy situations at the base of the ruck was exemplary throughout. He never let the tackler ‘rolling away’ dominate his timing of the delivery for the next phase:
This Australian halfback is proactive at removing the impediment of tacklers (Kieran Read in the first instance, Sam Whitelock in the second) who just happen to be taking their time to clear out of the delivery zone.
When the occasion demanded, White did not hesitate to get his hands dirty to tidy up ruck ball:
In the first period, White concentrated on kicking and passing, in the second – and with the All Blacks one tight-five forward short – he ran from the base at the depleted interior defence instead.
He had established that he was going to be a running threat right from the start of the game, with both of his first two scoots attracting penalties to Australia. The third created a clean break for Reece Hodge around the end of the lineout:
It was White’s ability to engage the two defenders closest to the side of the ruck which tormented the All Blacks exponentially as the game wore on, as Scott Barrett’s absence became a yawning chasm they could not fill:
White spotted Whitelock still in the process of reloading on the short side of the ruck, then took a couple of steps to pull the space further and draw the eyes of both Read and Ngani Laumape towards him:
That was just enough to create the space for Rory Arnold and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to exploit near the sideline.
Moments later, he was up in support of Koroibete’s break and Samu Kerevi’s powerful dance down the left touchline to score Australia’s third try of the match; carefully slowing down not once, but twice to avoid over-running the ball (at 3:00 on the highlight reel).
By the start of the final quarter, White had formed a break-and-offload alliance with replacement prop Taniela Tupou which was more than a trifle unholy:
Once again, it was those first two steps away from the breakdown which pulled the inside defence out of shape and created the seam for Tupou to exploit.
White’s final act before retiring to the pine was to remember his Rob Baxter schooling rather than his Jake White days at the Brumbies and initiate a counter-attack right from his own goalline:
Instead of kicking the ball tamely into touch, he drew the chasers before releasing Kurtley Beale on a mazy run from his own line.
You need only look at James O’Connor’s angled cleanout on Anton Lienert-Brown, which created the opening for Koroibete’s clean break in the lead-up to the Wallabies’ third try (at 3:30 on the reel), to know how the northern hemisphere has helped round out the skill-sets of players who were already talented, and operating at elite level.
O’Connor added tangible value against New Zealand; Nic White probably even more so. The scrum half is the key player in Shaun Berne’s new attack system, and White played his role to perfection.
In the process, he comprehensively dismantled outdated notions of him as a halfback who can only kick the ball and goad the opposition. White has become a leader and decision-maker of the highest order, and that is just what this current Wallaby team needs. Michael Cheika is fortunate indeed to enjoy a choice between him and Will Genia come the World Cup game against Wales.
In the meantime, he has to come to terms with the fallout from the Wallabies’ spectacular rout of the All Blacks in Perth and bring his charges back to terra firma.
Back in 2012, England probably dined out on that pinnacle of performance for four months, but Australia has the prospect of a return game against the same opponents, on their favourite patch of grass, only three days from now.
A motivated New Zealand side with the Bledisloe Cup at stake is just what Cheika’s Wallabies need to find out how much of their obvious improvement is not simply a bolt from the blue, never to be repeated.
Enjoy the moment, but do not savour it for too long.