In 2019, for the first time since 2015, we have a live Bledisloe series after the first Test.
Defeating the All Blacks in Perth in Bledisloe 1 by 47-26 is a real shot in the arm for Australian rugby and its beleaguered, rusted-on fans. There was a huge crowd of 61,000 in Perth as well, indicating a very strong fan base there, even though the Western Force were dropped from Super Rugby in 2017.
The local support during the preparation week and at the game was a welcome boost to the home side, and those elements have been a feature missing from Sydney Bledisloe Tests of recent times, though Brisbane is still mostly a happy hunting ground for the Wallabies.
Notably, 2015 was another World Cup year, so it was also a two-part Bledisloe series instead of the normal three.
Being blown away in the first game every year is a killer blow for spectator interest, losing 42-8 in 2016, 54-34 in 2017 and 38-13 in 2018.
In 2015, the Wallabies won Bledisloe 1 by 27-19 in Sydney. Michael Cheika, in preparation for the World Cup, then made wholesale changes to the Wallabies for the second Bledisloe Test in Auckland. This backfired spectacularly, with a 41-13 loss to NZ.
Momentum into the World Cup was stopped in its tracks for the Wallabies, while the All Blacks got a big boost instead. It played out that way all the way to the 2015 World Cup Final with NZ beating the Wallabies.
Momentum, psychological advantage, and team and individual self-belief are major elements of top-level sport, so I doubt that Michael Cheika will make the same mistake twice.
It is 2019, the Wallabies have won Bledisloe 1 of a two-Test series, and the team that ran on in Perth will almost certainly be the team that runs on in Auckland next Saturday. And so it should be.
NZ apparently played their strongest team in Perth, so wanted to make a statement to the Wallabies and the world about the invincibility of the All Blacks and entrench their aura. It backfired spectacularly, too.
But, in hindsight, was it the best NZ team? Steve Hansen, the NZ coach, has been experimenting with Beauden Barrett at fullback and Richie Mo’unga at fly half, with Ben Smith pushed from fullback to the wing. It doesn’t seem to be working, with the two playmakers somehow adding up to less rather than more, and the esteemed playmaking fullback Ben Smith pretty much neutered.
With less than 40% possession, the NZ attack had fewer opportunities than the Wallabies, so perhaps Hansen will roll the dice again and stick to the experiment. But I doubt it. A flogging in Perth means that national pride is on the line and the NZ population will be demanding a win.
A rejig of the NZ back line is the first cab off the rank to get a win, and gaining more possession is the other major element required. With Jack Goodhue leaving the field after 18 minutes with a hamstring strain, he won’t be playing, so a shift of Anton Lienert-Brown from 12 to 13 and the inclusion of Sonny Bill Williams at 12 is likely.
Ben Smith back to 15, Barrett to 10 and Mo’unga to the bench. Either George Bridge or Sevu Reece would most likely take the wing spot.
A major problem area for the All Blacks in Perth was the dynamic contribution at halfback for the Wallabies from Nic White. Aaron Smith couldn’t help his forwards to contain him, so TJ Perenara will probably start with the big mission of shutting White down.
Will he be able to do it? It is going to be a big test for White, but the assurance he is now displaying since coming home from English rugby is an indication that it will not be easy for Perenara.
This will be the major NZ focus to shut down the Wallabies’ attack, because gain-line penetration seemed way too easy from the Wallabies in Perth, and if it’s repeated in Auckland, then NZ will be open for the kill again.
In Perth, there were some egregious penalties given away by the All Blacks in their apparent targeting of the Wallabies captain Michael Hooper. A three-man head high tackle from a restart earned a Wallabies penalty early on, while Ardie Savea’s head shove to the static Hooper on the ground earned another a bit later.
A backwards lifting head snap by Savea as the second tackler over the top on Hooper, again on the ground, was not noticed by officials, but it was certainly a lot worse than the first two infringements. The red card to Scott Barrett for the shoulder-charge to Hooper’s head was the icing on the cake for NZ’s Hooper attacks.
These penalties gave away both position and possession for NZ and contributed to their overall lack of possession.
Possession is determined by maintaining set-piece control of own-ball, giving away few penalties, making few mistakes leading to turnovers, and scavenging productively for turnovers of the opposition ball. Scrums looked under pressure at times for NZ and they were probably lucky not to incur a couple more penalties against them there.
Line-outs were reasonable but not an advantage, while turnovers were few. The Savea, Kieran Reid and Sam Cane trifecta of breakdown scavengers did not have a productive night, and this was probably due to a vastly improved clean-out accuracy from the Wallabies combined with strong go-forward ball getting beyond the gain line and putting the All Blacks on the back pedal.
Dane Coles playing in the wide channels with the outside backs was a luxury NZ could not afford in Perth, with the forwards under constant pressure to stem the tide at the gain line. Cody Taylor will probably start at hooker to get more grunt into the NZ pack, but two aging props and a weakened second row may not be enough to provide the solid base needed.
The All Blacks will be highly motivated at home in Auckland, with the Wallabies not having won there for 33 years. The Wallabies, however, will be highly motivated to break that hoodoo, and Michael Cheika is unlikely to muck with a winning team in 2019 to give the Wallabies their best chance.
The match is in the balance, but the Wallabies have the momentum. This match might answer some questions about the All Blacks, but they are unlikely to be conclusive.
Are they a fading force? If they are, which team will step up to take the World Cup trophy?
The South Africa vs NZ pool match may provide a more definitive answer, but Wallaby momentum could gain strength from Auckland as well.
That’s why we’re interested. But moreover, we’re excited for what comes next.