You can watch a rugby match in so many ways. This is one of the critical joys of the union code.
Is it a game of shape and flow? A momentum match? Should we look at individual match-ups? Does gain-line dominance tend to decide it?
Or is it pressure projected and protected? Will fitness and substitution policies turn tides? Will it come down to accuracy; decisions in the clutch? Pods or battalions? Set piece staging or starve-and-counter? A simple mathematical efficacy in red zones? Or zonal markings like a chess-checkers hybrid?
At Wellington, recently an All Blacks bogey pitch, the Wallabies forced me to overlook all templates. I did not care about metrics of kicking, nor the finer points that can make a neutral have analysis serotonin.
Australia came to fight. Not with the sullen pouts of the last epoch of the interminable Michael Cheika era. Not with biff and bluster. The Wallabies cannot yet employ what Brother Squidge calls the ‘bastardry of the Boks.’ It was an Aussie style of dogged determination. Never say die.
The visitors owned the ball in the first half, and made fruitless forays into the All Blacks’ defensive 22, but Sam Cane was in a mood and it was his kind of weather and his style of match.
Also, Folau Fainga’a and his locks had the timing and grace of an old sticky typewriter. To cap it off, Taniela ‘Turnover’ Tupou kept stymieing Wallaby multiphase attacks with trademark manic cleaning attempts wide of the mark.
But what I saw, instead of this, was pure and beautifully cohesive aggression from old James Slipper, gain line monster LSL, head down Matt Philip, centurion Michael Hooper, and the tight-shorts kid, big chunk Harry Wilson. Allan Alaalatoa fit better with this cohort in his 39 minute shift, and Jordan Uelese was faster to the ruck than Fainga’a.
There is the makings of a Dave Rennie pack in there; even if Rob Simmons remains mostly just a lineout fixer. The way the Wallabies battled and battered and started to win their personal grunt battles (the Aussie locks shaded Sam Whitelock and Patrick Tuipulotu, and Wilson probably had the wood on Shannon Frizell, both in the tight and the loose), I felt the halftime adjustments would be easier for Rennie than his opposite number.
Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi were not outplayed; and they were starchy in their core roles. But I felt Cane was a bit alone in his loose trio, and needed a Cullen Grace or some other bouncer.
Any true rugby fan would have loved watching Aaron Smith and Nic White go head to head, mano y mano, twirp versus clown, chirp versus chippy, with Smith winning a couple of 10-8 rounds (the fend and finish) and White, many 10-9 rounds (better box kicks, frenetic snipes, more variety).
Both were replaced by lesser players on the day; TJP looking a bit slow, and Jake Gordon’s passes too high and soft.
Australia defended like madmen. Richie Mo’unga was absolutely pole-axed by Wilson (late) and smashed regularly by Matt To’omua. Just like George Ford in the Rugby World Cup final became error-prone after being looked after by PSDT, Mo’unga started to make the kind of kicking errors you make when your ribs feel separated.
In fact, the entire All Black backline except Smith seemed misplaced. Goodhue is not an inside centre, Reiko Ioane is not a test-level 13, Jordie Barrett is not a real wing (see how Caleb Clarke came on and showed George Bridge and Barrett how it looks).
Meanwhile, Marika Koroibete finished a very tough chance, Hunter Paisami looked like a Test 13, and Filipo Daugunu was possibly the most dangerous man with ball in hand on the pitch; rarely the case for a visiting player in New Zealand. James O’Connor crabs a bit too much for me, but he did outplay Mo’unga, and when that happens (as Handre Pollard did in the 16-16 draw at the same ground), the All Blacks can struggle a bit.
In these types of matches, it comes down to imposing your will, staying connected and focused, a bit of luck, and a kick. A kick not taken (both sides having wonderful chances to take a drop goal, especially Mo’unga in the pocket, but unseen by TJP), but also a kick that finds that cruel upright (Reece Hodge, who got through that ball with a thump that stopped every heart for two seconds).
Yes, the Wallabies attempted too many offloads (of their eight, only three were wise), and did not clear to touch surely enough (leading to the All Blacks’ first try), and had a hope-wish lineout instead of a sure-thing set piece, and their scrum folded late, but they were not bullied, they were the bullies.
They ran like bulls to walls in Pamplona, seeking contact, and all they need to add is a quicker cleaning crew and an end to TTT penalties on attack. This Rennie squad could show even more clearly that New Zealand appointed the wrong successor, has a second row issue and had had that issue for a few years, and that no matter how you knock him, BBBBB is their most valuable back.
Here come the Wallabies, in the finest tradition of Australian rugby, not running from everywhere like headless fowl, or bleating like shorn sheep after a loss about referees.
Aussie rugby is tough rugby. Smart players digging deep. Finding solutions in the heat of battle. And not getting pushed around.
I was very happy to watch a real rugby match that mattered; the first one in 2020 that actually ticked all the boxes. Well done, Wallabies.
Prepare for the fury of an All Black team with wounded pride. The next Test is the real test.