Looking at a 0-36 scoreline is not a pretty sight for the Wallabies, so what really went wrong?
After beating NZ 47-26 the week before, hopes were high among Wallaby fans for a long-awaited Bledisloe Cup win. But it was not to be.
The scoreline looks atrocious, but is it now all doom and gloom? Or is there still a possible light at the end of the tunnel?
NZ’s Aaron Smith was a major proponent of a kicking game that saw Beale in serious difficulty, and was a clear strategy that worked brilliantly for NZ.
Ritchie Mo’unga, too, kicked judiciously. If NZ knew about Beale’s weakness in wet conditions at fullback, so should the Wallabies.
In hindsight, therefore, a specialist fullback safe under the high ball might have been a better choice on the night. Dane Haylett-Petty would have been that man, and if Michael Cheika has such a dilemma in Japan at the WC, then DHP had better play fullback.
Kurtley Beale had seemed much improved under the high ball in dry conditions in recent times, and that may have been due to his getting a consistent run at fullback in 2019, so his skills could be honed.
Dry conditions would still be fertile grounds for KB at the WC.
Beale’s pass to Reece Hodge, which Hodge fumbled into the waiting hands of Ritchie Mo’unga, was the fault of Hodge’s timing, overrunning fractionally.
It was a good pass, but Mo’unga duly ran away and scored. The luck that was with the Wallabies the week before deserted them there, and instead of a strong attacking position deep in NZ territory, the scoreline jumped to 0-10.
Luck is a big part of sport, especially top-level sport, and the more complicated the game, the more important it is. Rugby is about the most complicated game there is.
Further elements of luck that went against the Wallabies were the first penalty attempt by Christian Lealiifano hitting the left-hand upright and bouncing back, and the penalty against Adam Coleman in the very first lineout of the match from referee Jaco Peyper, which ultimately led to a successful penalty goal to NZ and a 0-3 scoreline.
The Wallabies have a very poor record under Jaco Peyper against NZ. Coleman has been guilty of dragging down in the past, yet on this occasion he seemed to attack the player and ball after he had come down.
That the first penalty went against the Wallabies and that it happened on the very first set-play was no real surprise for keen watchers of Peyper in Bledisloe tests.
Unfortunately, there is a fragility within the Wallabies against NZ particularly that appears to make setbacks more mountains than molehills, so luck and a good start is very important for them.
In Perth they scored first and went to a 10-0 lead before giving up 12 points and falling behind 10-12.
They had had a good start, however, so they powered back from there instead of folding their tent. Initial confidence is crucial. That Hodge overrun in Auckland was crucial, but the initial penalty was the worse setback.
Confidence is inherent, earned, and comes with winning experience, and so poor performances can badly affect teams without a team full of inherently confident players. Think of the young James O’Connor there.
Michael Cheika in post-match interview mentioned poor kicking, meaning kicking with no plan and no specific advantage possible unless the opponent drops it.
Lealiifano put in a shocker straight to Beauden Barrett in the preamble to the second NZ try.
The Lealiifano plan appeared to be only that he didn’t want the ball. While he did run up to join the defensive line to the left of Nick White pursuant to BB running the ball back at the Wallabies, he clocked off when BB veered left.
If he had moved to the right toward White, that would have initiated the whole defensive line moving right and should have resulted in the plugging of the gap outside Lukhan Salakaia-Loto that George Bridge steamed through.
Nicholas Bishop has pointed out Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s defensive foibles, and remember he missed Beauden Barrett 10m out for BB to score under the posts in Perth as well. Another poor defensive read.
The trouble was, that catastrophe, courtesy of Lealiifano and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto resulted in a 0-17 scoreline and ostensibly the end of the match for the Wallabies. “NZ retain Bledisloe Cup” was then the most prominent thought in Wallaby minds.
Until that try, the Wallabies had defended well.
Another confidence-killer for the Wallabies was the failure to get the confidence boost they probably deserved after a period of good and constructive Wallaby play when Koirebete was tackled two metres short of the line early in the first half.
Once again, the Nicholas Bishop comment that Beale missed the cleanout on Bridge resulting in a turnover and a NZ escape, was on the money. Beale got the angle and timing wrong, and the missed opportunity, along with the two missed Lealiifano penalties, were confidence-killers for the Wallabies.
Adam Coleman did not have the presence that Rory Arnold has been projecting, and the missing grunt was an issue. The Wallabies did not start with the same attitude that they produced in Perth, and those perhaps slightly subdued energy levels are unfortunately a vacuum waiting to be filled, and the ABs needed no invitation.
So, the energy was down, luck was against them early, mistakes were made leading to the two first tries by NZ, and the fragility was exposed.
Scrums were a feature of the Wallaby performance in Perth and they were on top of NZ in Bledisloe 1.
Many scrums could have resulted in Wallaby penalties that night but only one was called, so the so-called biased French referee Jerome Garces was pretty friendly there. So, what happened in Auckland?
Aerial shots seemed to show regular and significant boring-in from Joe Moody, which wouldn’t be a surprise since he’ll do that if he can get away with it. Assistant referees (on the touchline) have a difficult viewpoint to adjudicate boring-in, so it really is the referee’s job.
Perhaps the missing Rory Arnold was a factor, and perhaps replacing Franks with Luala for NZ was a factor, but neither seem to be significant enough to allow a 7-man AB pack to demolish the Wallaby 8. Had the Wallabies switched off mentally?
It seems to be part of the fragility thing, but there was no doubt too, that NZ dark arts had been in action.
Hooper, White and Kerevi stood out for the Wallabies. Lealiifano faltered, and Toomua looked better when he replaced him.
The Wallaby reserve props looked better than the run-ons as well, so a switch around might be on the cards there.
Blindside flanker could need reviewing, and it is a pity that Jack Dempsey has played so little this last year due to injury.
Luke Jones needs a start against Samoa. I was disappointed to see Nick White replaced by Will Genia, but perhaps Cheika wanted to give Genia a longer run in lieu of the obvious loss.
Losing by a very big score is worse for confidence that losing by a lesser margin, and Genia initiated a helter-skelter attack-at-all-costs plan that blew up with soft tries conceded.
Maybe Cheika wanted to protect White, as he is clearly the best Wallaby halfback now, and close to being the best Wallaby at all.
That the ABs somewhat countered his early couple of steps subversion by ignoring it and just concentrating on hitting the forward receivers did not blunt his service speed and accuracy. An alternate and more varied strategy was needed though.
Once again, here, the Wallabies were losing on strategy. I think it is a given that a successful strategy in one week will be targeted in the next.
So, don’t replicate. Or, at least don’t start off doing it, but do something very different instead. Outlandish stuff quite often gets put on by the Springboks and good on them for doing it.
Turning midfield ball into rolling mauls or going for endless first-receiver-with-supporters barge-ball such as we see on tryline attack, is different enough to throw the defence out of their game-plan defensive strategy.
Throw in a two-step halfback play after a while, or maybe go for the double out-the-back wide ball play. Obviously, keeping the ball denies the ABs attacking play, which starts to affect their mojo.
Strategy can be an issue. Fragility can be an issue. Luck is essential against NZ, too. Player attitude and energy are massive. Many things can go wrong, but things can also go right. Then the Wallabies can beat the best.
All these elements are going to play out at the coming WC and, as we saw in Perth, it is not just the Wallabies who are affected.
Nicholas Bishop thinks that no team will remain unbeaten and it is how the loss hurts that will determine the WC winner. Wallaby fans should, therefore, concentrate on the positives and hope the stars align at the right moments.