They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.
This is a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘Meet Me In the Morning’, a great slow burner from his Blood On The Tracks album. There might be a lot in this song and this album coming to mind when I think about the coming Test match between New Zealand and Australia.
There is still some speculation about the exact selections for the match-day squads, but the general outline is pretty clear. On what I have seen so far this year and what I have seen of the likely Australian match-day squad, the darkest hour is still not quite done and the dawn won’t be this weekend. There might well be a lot of Wallaby blood on the tracks.
It is not that the Australian side is made up of poor players, or that Dave Rennie is a poor coach. It is not that better days may not lie ahead for Australian rugby, or that New Zealand does not have vulnerabilities.
The All Blacks remind me of the great West Indies or Australian sides in cricket. They have the capacity to zero in on the weaknesses, often barely glimpsed before, and to ruthlessly build pressure on those vulnerabilities until the cracks open up.
The All Blacks also have a multi-faceted ability to apply pressure. They can do it in set piece, they can use physicality and athleticism. They can use kicking, or ball in hand. They are usually orthopaedic surgeon-like in the loose – brutal but also sharp. A lot of promising sides have met a sorry end despite promising signs.
I am struggling to see players, especially in the spine of the Australian side, who would be considered better than, or even equal to, their New Zealand counterpart.
It appears likely that James O’Connor will be selected to start at ten. He is a different player to the somewhat callow youth of 2013. There are legitimate reasons to support him as a bona fide ten.
I don’t share that view. I see his pass on his weak side as being too weak for this level and his kicking game, especially the longer kick, remains an area of particular concern. Under pressure this year I have seen his kicking deteriorate quite spectacularly.
In the games this season against the ACT Brumbies he started with some kicks for touch that were a pleasant surprise, but as the game wore on the kicks frequently ended as aimless hoofing downfield and/or failed to find touch.
Test rugby remains a game where the adage “possession, position, pressure, penalty, points” remains true. This does not mean endless kicking is the way, but an accurate, powerful long kicking game is a big part of almost any top side. It gets you out of trouble in defence, it can win easy metres.
If touch is found and the ball is put deep into touch (negating the quick throw in), it assists in taking control of the tempo of the game. It can force teams to take risks in parts of the field that hurt them when they make mistakes or have to commit transgressions under pressure.
Rugby union is a game of laws and penalties are an integral part of winning the game. Odd penalties are a part of that and it is much better to risk them at the end of the field that hurts you less and where it may hurt your opponent more.
I don’t see who for Australia has the clear ability to control a game and to control tempo under pressure. New Zealand sides can change the tempo of the game rapidly to suit their ends. They are especially destructive in broken play. They kick smartly. They use kicking to build pressure and they make a lot of kicks that result in them regaining possession from the kick.
I have seen little evidence that O’Connor, fine player that he is, has the capacity to counter New Zealand and he will be targeted in this area of his game.
Matt To’omua is a similar player. I see him as a more natural ten than O’Connor, but they are players with the instincts best suited to 12, as second playmakers, somewhat as Tim Horan was.
Noah Lolesio is incredibly promising and may develop into a great Australian ten. I see a lot of Michael Lynagh in him in terms of his playing a hybrid ten-12 style and his mental make-up. If he turns out to be half the player that Lynagh was, that would be an accomplishment.
I would not start him against New Zealand, although what I have seen of his temperament suggests he might manage. Like several Australians I see him as being a year short of where he needs to be in terms of experience and conditioning.
Set piece is an area of potential weakness for New Zealand. It is not that they are poor at scrum or lineout. However, they have moved more and more towards wanting players who are solid at set piece but who can really contribute a lot in the other parts of the game and especially the ball-in-hand game.
Whether this is a response to the players coming through or whether it is an assessment of the relative importance of set piece as the game evolves, I don’t know. It may be a bit of both.
Australia should be aiming to use what looks like a potent scrummaging unit for all it is worth. Taniela Tupou’s development – one of the relatively few recent developmental success stories for Australia – may put pressure on New Zealand to select Joe Moody at loosehead to counter Tupou.
While there are generally less and less scrums in rugby, this can actually make them even more important. They can be excellent generators of penalties and they seem to have a strong psychological impact on players and referees. They can generate impacts well beyond their actual numbers.
The lineout worries me for Australia. It is likely that Folau Fainga’a will start and will throw into a lineout that will feature two locks, who are not familiar targets. I have no argument with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip as locks, especially in the absence of other players, but timing and understanding are really important in the lineout combinations working.
I recall a very promising Marco Caputo from the ACT Brumbies throwing into a lineout of a Queenslander and a New South Welshman. Each of the players were excellent lineout technicians but the combination turned rancid and the lineout was a debacle.
Caputo never played for Australia again and a promising career sputtered out not long after. That is a risk on Saturday. New Zealand, with the steadily improving Patrick Tuipulotu and the superb Sam Whitelock, should apply a lot of lineout pressure.
I suspect they will also have a slightly taller back row to add to that pressure. Brodie Retallick will be missed but it is the defensive lineout work of Kieran Read that will really be missed. I still see lineouts as being a danger area for Australia.
I also see the likely Australian back three as being vulnerable defensively, especially in kicking duels. Marika Koroibete is a fine attacking player and he is improving steadily in his positional defensive play. His kicking game is best not discussed.
Filipo Daugunu also brings great attacking ability, but New Zealand will surely have viewed his performance in the final against the ACT Brumbies with interest. Daugunu isn’t quite ready and despite his background in football, I haven’t seen much evidence that he has a potent kicking game.
Thomas Banks has a booming kick and speed and stepping in attack, but he remains a little frightening in defence. Dane Haylett-Petty offered a lot at fullback, but age and injury seem to be combining to put him a little past his best.
I also see the centres as being something of a work in progress. Hunter Paisami is a real talent, but he is relatively young and inexperienced and in the hardest defensive position (13), he isn’t quite ready. He is another player I would like to see with a year more under his belt. The channels between 13 and wing may see some traffic as New Zealand look to test Paisami’s tendency to over-commit.
The Australian back row seems likely to be made up of Michael Hooper, Harry Wilson and Pete Samu. It is not as small a back row as some Australia have fielded and Samu has been a successful lineout jumper for the ACT Brumbies.
However, it still looks a little short. Wilson looks a very promising player and another who would benefit from another season before being thrown into the pressure cooker of a Test in New Zealand (or a pair of Tests in New Zealand).
This will be a fairly quick and physical back row and it will be a reasonably smart one. I suspect that we may see Hooper in a style closer to that which he played under Jake White at the ACT Brumbies rather than his later roles, which played to his speed and work rate but left his relative lack of physical presence exposed at times, including being blown off the ball by opposing backs at the ruck or tackle.
If New Zealand use a combination of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and any of Hoskins Sotutu (my preferred pick), Akira Ioane or Shannon Frizell, Australia’s back row may struggle for impact.
History shows that there have been many occasions over the last 18 brutal years of Bledisloe drought when Australian sides with a similar mix of potential and vulnerability have gone to New Zealand with high hopes only to return beaten and bullied.
The last Australian Test win in New Zealand was when Eddie Jones pulled out some tactical surprises and Australia won at a slippery Dunedin. That was a seasoned Australian team with a number of players in key positions that would have been strong contenders for selection in any world team. That is not yet where this Australian side is at.
However, history does provide some reasons to hope. There is an unknown in the relative mettle of the two national coaches, in terms of how they will perform at this level.
In the halcyon years for Australia of 1991-1994 and 1998-2002, Australian sides often had coaching as a factor that made the difference between two relatively evenly matched sets of players.
Often in those periods, New Zealand appeared to have slightly better players overall yet still often lost in very close finishes (Toutai Kefu’s winning try at the death in 2001, anybody?).
Going back further, in 1982, a very inexperienced Australian side toured New Zealand and did far better than expected, also laying the ground for the superb sides in 1984-1987. Something similar might be said of 1990.
Maybe the pretty awful 2019 season was the darkest hour, right before the Rennie-inspired dawn? Maybe.
The line after in the Dylan song may end up being more apt: ‘You wouldn’t know it by me babe, every hour’s been darkness since you’ve been gone.’