News last week that a Wallabies win by 16 points or more at Eden Park could have the All Blacks slip to sixth on World Rugby’s rankings had the buzzards circling.
A team that suddenly looked old and had failed to regenerate itself had become, if not yet road kill, just like every other team: mortal.
The All Blacks of 2019 may not have the consistent, authoritative dominance seen throughout most of Steve Hansen’s tenure, but their 36-point Bledisloe Cup thumping of the Wallabies consigned reports of their demise to, if not the shredder, at least to the deeper confines of rugby’s in-tray.
The performance of the All Blacks and Wallabies in Perth and Auckland demonstrates how the progress of rugby teams is never linear. Rather, teams decline and advance in a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ way, the week to week margins so fine, and number of variables so high, that it is always dangerous to draw conclusions from one week and apply them to the next.
In that sense, the truism that ‘things are never as good or as bad as they might appear’ applied as much last week, as it does this. There is no sugar coating a 36-0 loss, but analysis of the Wallabies over all 320 minutes of Test rugby so far this year, shows a team that is improving and – assuming one of Fiji and Wales is seen off – will provide a nasty quarter-final opponent for England, France or Argentina, in Japan.
Likewise, the All Blacks have restored confidence and self-belief – at least in their fans – but will know how this guarantees them nothing for when they start their cup defence against South Africa, in four weeks’ time.
The tone for the match was set early at Eden Park. Any hope of the Wallabies pinning the All Blacks down from the kick-off was easily extinguished; the home side immediately securing field position and three points, via intelligent kicking and a powerhouse scrum.
The All Blacks’ kickers – notably Aaron Smith – had both the tactics and execution spot on, finding green space and skidding the ball off the slippery surface on the angle, leaving the Wallabies back three nothing to work with.
To their credit, the Wallabies weathered the All Blacks’ opening parry and worked their way into the game well, forcing a series of penalties. But when Christian Lealiifano twice got his angles wrong, there was a sense that their moment had passed, and indeed, the game was swept from the Wallabies in just three brutal minutes.
Reece Hodge spilled a pass from Kurtley Beale that was entitled to hit him on the chest, the low scoop at pace by Richie Mo’unga superb as he scooted 60m unopposed for the opening try.
And as if to show how little men learn from history, it was Lealiifano’s loose kick that set off a chain of events that looked remarkably similar to any number of Bledisloe Cup tries scored at Eden Park over the last 17 years; the All Blacks lethal on the counter attack, for Smith to race over.
If Michael Cheika was disappointed at the Wallabies kicking a ‘nothing ball’ to Beauden Barrett when his instruction was to retain possession, he should be less impressed at how Lealliifano compounded his error by how, in his haste to correct things, he raced up ahead of the chasing line.
A fractured chase is meat and drink for a player of Barrett’s pace and vision, with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, not for the first time, no chance in the tram lines, once George Bridge had a half-yard of space on his outside.
With the Cup already safe, a series of events just prior to half-time inadvertently led to the All Blacks’ crowning moment of the evening. An evidently deaf Dane Coles wilfully ignored referee Jaco Peyper’s request to pull his head in, in favour of sitting Nic White on his backside, and was sat down for ten.
What followed was extraordinary. Not one, but two scrums – either side of halftime – were fed with the Wallabies a man up, the All Blacks packing with Keiran Read in the second row, without a number 8, yet the All Blacks’ pack completely blew over the Wallabies.
Any temporary embarrassment from earlier trying to catch a ball with his face was erased as Nepo Laulala emerged with the plaudits – and almost certainly, a starting role in Yokohama.
It was the scrum dominance too that provided the platform for Sonny Bill Williams’ try in the 46th minute, the irresistible Ardie Savea and Smith working beautifully off front-foot ball, to honour Williams’ nicely angled running line.
By then Coles had returned – courtesy of a very generous Hansen who, on another day, might have been tempted to leave him seated, to stew on his stupidity.
More tries followed, one each to the two young wingers. Sevu Reece (who has more than an echo of Joe Rokocoko about him), scored his first Test try with what has quickly become a trademark toe and chase play at the Crusaders, before the impressive Bridge closed out the match in the 76th minute, after Savea picked off what must be the easiest turnover of his whole career – the Wallabies not only inviting him into their house but leaving the keys in the front door.
Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox have a testing nine days ahead before his World Cup squad is finalised and announced. There is a compelling sense that for both Reece and Bridge, it is their time.
And with Barrett proving so dangerous from fullback, and brother Jordie’s utility valued highly, there is the almost surreal prospect of Ben Smith missing the cut. Good luck to whoever has to make that phone call.
What was surely put to bed was any doubt on the part of fans about Mo’unga and Barrett playing in the same XV. Skeptics had the focus all wrong – this was never about some cock and bull theory about needing to find a balance between dual ‘play-makers’, but simply a matter of the All Blacks utilising their personnel in the best possible way.
Barrett’s pace offers another dimension from the back – a point of difference that other sides lack and that New Zealand, desperate to stay ahead of the chasing pack, crave.
And anyone who saw Mo’unga play against the All Blacks for the Barbarians at Twickenham two years ago, knew then that he had the game and the temperament for Test rugby; let alone how he has steered the Crusaders around since then. Case closed.
If the Wallabies caught the All Blacks on the hop in Perth, tactically and in speed and clean execution, what was even more impressive about this performance was that the Wallabies – everybody – knew exactly what the All Blacks were going to bring.
Go forward? Savea, check. Physicality in defence? Sam Cane and Patrick Tuipolotu, check. More carry and ball play from the props? Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, check.
Maul defence? Accurate and strong, check.
Urgency? Smith’s one poor kick of the whole match went straight to Marika Koroibete, who duly ran it back via the direct route. But rather than spark a Wallabies counter, it was Smith who hared across to the breakdown to fix up his own mistake, spoiling the Wallabies’ ball. Check.
And as if to remind gunslingers of the folly of shooting from the hip, particularly when champion players are the target, Keiran Read stood like a man who was never giving up the Bledisloe Cup on his watch. His legs may not get him from A to B quite as fast as they used to but, like Richie McCaw four years ago, he appears to have timed his finishing run to the minute.
Read looked delighted to bow out from Eden Park undefeated, accepting the silverware from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who notably, appeared to enjoy the proceedings without the inconvenience of a sock in her mouth.
Will Genia spoke graciously and frankly after the match, acknowledging the performance of the All Blacks, but also insisting that Wallabies’ fans retain the faith over the next two and a half months.
It was a fair and reasonable request – while the 36-0 score-line might appear embarrassing, the performance was anything but. Certainly the imploding scrum was a surprise and a concern, but nothing the return of Rory Arnold and some technical attention over the next couple of weeks won’t fix.
There was a naivety about the Wallabies tactics that was confusing – it wasn’t as if anyone wasn’t aware that conditions were going to be nothing like those of Perth. But it’s one thing knowing what is required – the Wallabies have been without an effective kicking game throughout Cheika’s tenure, and weren’t suddenly going to conjure one up here.
What perhaps is closer to the truth of the matter was a clue provided by Genia, when he spoke about being at peace with his pending retirement and never having won the Bledisloe Cup, despite having enjoyed such a long and illustrious career.
He is one of a generation who simply don’t know what it takes, or don’t have what it takes, to beat New Zealand on a regular basis. That lady will turn one day but, just as Margaret Thatcher so emphatically put it, she isn’t ready for turning just yet.
Without wishing to single Genia out, it is that type of mindset that will have to change, if the outcomes are going to change.
The Wallabies’ performance in Perth showed that there are the bones of a good side lurking, that has the potential to benefit, next year and beyond, from the new coaching structure that is starting to gather in the wings.
Depth of talent is slowly building – any side in the world would kill for a prop with the handling skills and leg speed shown by Taniela Tupou on Saturday.
But even if for now the Wallabies remain a side defined by their weaknesses, unable to keep pace with a fully focused All Blacks’ side, back on their own manor, do not be surprised if the next step along the way is forward.