Well then… the completion of the Rugby Championship for the year and the obligatory non-Rugby Championship games last week brings with it one very harsh reality for the southern hemisphere nations.
There’s no doubt the Wallabies earned their win on the weekend.
They turned up, worked hard, and starved their opponents of possession. But the key to picking the All Blacks lock was laid bare for all to see. While some have downplayed the modern set-piece’s importance, it is the second row that drives a rugby team’s engine and the All Blacks’ engine is in a bit of strife at the moment.
However, Australian’s love of running rugby means we continue to overlook the importance of the tight five. This is strange – not only is our greatest player ever from the ranks of the tall timber, but our great sides have featured great second rowers.
Eales and Griffen, Eales and McCall, Williams and Cutler. But instead of highlighting the work rate of our tight five’s tall stuff, our commentators ramble on about schoolboy results from the Alma Mater of our fullback, or competent performances from our centres.
Elsewhere, the importance of the second row is no secret. Our Kiwi cousins have built their 21st-century dominance to date on world-class locks – McCaw didn’t do it all himself – while Colin Meades was their 20th Century colossus.
Matfield and Botha will always be synonymous with Springbok success, while Johnson and Kay led the poms in 2003. England’s resurgence in recent years cannot be dissociated with Mario Itoje’s emerging as a world-class player, while Nic Bishop has examined the rise of James Ryan – who joins Iain Henderson in leading the green machine to Japan.
Closer to home, the doubts about the All Blacks in 2019 have correlated with the below-par – and now absent – Brodie Retallick.
Just as Sam Whitelock and Brad Thorne built their success in 2011 with hard-nosed attack, uncompromising defence and set-piece dominance, so had Retallick picked up where Thorne left in 2015 to compel his side to the highest of heights.
But Retallick’s injury brought the All Blacks to a stuttering halt two weeks ago against the Boks. Scott Barrett was playing well as his replacement against the Wallabies on the weekend, but his attempted aggression in defence badly misjudged a run from the Wallabies Captain.
Barrett watched the second half from the bench, and his replacement – whoever it may be – will have a lot of catching up to do at Eden Park on the weekend.
The Wallabies were already playing well enough to win against a Retallick-less New Zealand. It was particularly pleasing to see Isi Naisarani on the front foot, but with the Kiwi’s engine room gutted, their expert halves lacked front-foot ball to work with.
The ascension of Rodda and Arnold over their opposite numbers – and Coleman’s excellent impact in the second half – is the key reason the Wallabies won. We can talk about the backs all day, and it was certainly entertaining.
But it’s been a while since I can remember the Wallaby backs having such a good platform to let loose. Can they do it two weeks in a row and lay a platform not just for their backs, but for their nation’s World Cup tilt?
We’ll see on the weekend.