Sixteen. All. The thrilling draw between the Wallabies and All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup opener means the start of the Dave Rennie and Ian Foster eras was nothing if not memorable.
In what were difficult conditions in Wellington, both sides combined to put on an enthralling display of Test match rugby, one which could have been won by either team.
It’s going to take quite some time to properly digest that match, but in the meantime, here are five talking points to get us started.
After the Wallabies recovered the ball from Reece Hodge’s long-range penalty attempt which left the goalposts shaking, they still had a perfect chance to claim a three-point win. Yet they didn’t take it – they didn’t even attempt it.
The drop-goal isn’t a regular sight in Australian rugby. And sure, sitting back in the pocket isn’t quite as sexy as sliding over for a match-winning try, but given how deep into New Zealand territory they were – and in a central position, too – it was an obvious avenue to the scoreboard after the hooter had sounded.
Instead, possession was coughed up to the All Blacks and it was the visitors who had to withstand a late charge before the whistle finally sounded.
Thankfully for Australia, their hosts had the same aversion to taking the shot when the opportunity was presented their way. And not for the first time – the same criticism was levelled at New Zealand after their two-point loss to the Springboks in 2018, which incidentally was also played in Wellington.
One can’t help but remember how cooly Noah Lolesio slotted a three-pointer in the Super Rugby AU final. That isn’t to say the Brumbies youngster ought to have been on the field to close out the match – James O’Connor was outstanding and Matt To’omua also had a strong game. But the Wallabies would have been well served by one of those veterans showing the same nous today that their inexperienced teammate put on display a few weeks ago.
It wasn’t a case of not practising for the scenario – Dave Rennie cleared that up after full-time.
“We practised it during the week,” he said.
“James O’Connor dropped back in the pocket, I’m not sure what happened there around communication, but we ended up going wider and turned it over. An opportunity lost, obviously.”
An opportunity lost indeed.
Two Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand plus another two on home soil, all in the space of five weekends, is an awfully rough initiation to international coaching. But just one match in and it’s clear Dave Rennie looks up to the challenge.
There was nothing to complain about in the team he picked for Bledisloe 1 when it was announced, and just about every player justified his selection in the game itself.
A number come immediately to mind: O’Connor continued his stellar form at flyhalf, To’omua was excellent in defence outside him, Nic White had an immense game at the base of the scrum, Taniela Tupou was busy with ball in hand, and all three debutants looked anything but first-gamers.
The most pleasing aspect of the team’s performance, and the most noticeable difference from the Wallabies’ efforts in 2019 and earlier, was how they played without the ball.
The rush defence worked in stifling the attacking prowess of the All Blacks, and the 16 points were the fewest Australia have conceded in a Bledisloe Cup match since August 2014 – incidentally the last draw between the two sides, a dour 12-all match played on a miserable, soaking, tryless night in Sydney.
Given how readily the Wallabies gave up points in previous years, it’s a welcome change to see them limit such a dangerous outfit, just as it was to see them hang on in defence in the closing phases of the match.
There wasn’t an Australian rugby fan expecting anything but a late All Blacks score when they marched into the red zone deep into injury time, so often have they happened in the past. To be able to hold on for a draw, then, was mightily impressive.
That being said…
Pleasing as the performance was and close though the result may, Rennie will be looking for considerable improvement out of his charges at Eden Park next week.
The lineout was a serious issue in the first half. Folau Fainga’a struggled to find his jumpers, and three throws were lost to New Zealand in the opening 40. Two of those led directly to points: first by providing the possession from which Jordie Barrett grabbed the first try of the game, and later a miss five metres from the Australian try-line ending in Barrett knocking over three points from a penalty.
Forwards coach Geoff Parling is considered a lineout specialist, and while that set-piece improved in the second half, he has some serious work ahead of him this week before Game 2.
The breakdown is another area of concern. The Wallabies might have won nine turnovers, but they also gave away possession far too often due to either a lack of support for the ball carrier or an inaccurate cleanout.
A number of those ruck penalties were conceded with the ball in advanced areas of the ground, such as when Matt Philip was hauled down inches short of the try-line or when White sniped off the back of a maul five metres out. Those would have been particularly frustrating for Rennie and his assistants.
Of course, simply saying “be better at the ruck” is a good deal simpler than actually being able to do it against the likes of Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, but it’s nonetheless an area which needs to improve.
The three Wallabies debutants each put in assured performances on Sunday afternoon.
Hunter Paisami was a key midfield ball-runner, and concerns around his defensive readiness weren’t realised. While he hammered away through the middle, Harry Wilson was employed effectively in the wide channels out wide, where he made a strong impact, particularly in the first half.
Their Reds teammate Filipo Daugunu had the best game of all three. After his yellow card and error-riddled display in the Super Rugby AU final, there were justified worries about how his discipline would hold up against the All Blacks, but the winger didn’t concede a penalty all afternoon.
When he had the ball, he was excellent. He made the most dangerous runs of all the Wallabies in the first half, scored with a superb finish down the right-hand touchline to tie the game in the second, and by full-time had amassed 130 running metres. No Australian winger has got close to that many against New Zealand in recent – and even not-so-recent – memory.
If Bledisloe 1 is anything to go by, we’ll be seeing plenty more of those three in the famous gold jersey in years to come.
Good one-off performances against New Zealand are not completely out of the ordinary for Australia. Just last year, this corresponding fixture ended in a euphoric 47-26 win to the Wallabies, only for it to be promptly followed a week later by crushing 36-0 defeat.
Game 1 was a promising start to Dave Rennie’s reign, but it will be far more impressive if he can keep his side competitive over the next three fixtures.
Just as the Wallabies have areas to improve, this was nothing like a polished outing from the All Blacks. They were unable to enjoy long spells in possession and their attacking prowess was lessened by the energy they expended in making 202 tackles.
It will be a different XV they run out at Eden Park, too – and that venue will in itself provide a boost. Beauden Barrett is expected to be fit for Game 2 after a tight achilles tendon kept him out of the series opener, and will provide a considerable upgrade on Damian McKenzie, who had a quiet game.
There’ll be thought given to bringing Anton Lienert-Brown into the starting XV, too, after Reiko Ioane bombed a five-pointer with an inexplicable knock-on and was later sucked in by a decoy runner during the Wallabies’ first try.
Rennie was making all the right noises after the game, saying “We’re miles away from where we need to be. We let ourselves down.”
Harsh though it may seem, he’s right to immediately put the focus on producing an improved performance, because you can guarantee that’s exactly what the All Blacks will provide next week.