“We’re still miles from where we need to be.”
That was Dave Rennie’s take on the Wallabies’ draw with the All Blacks in Bledisloe 1, and yesterday’s selections for Bledisloe 2 proved it wasn’t just idle chat.
It was a surprise to see four players brought into the team following the 16-all stalemate in Wellington – a result not a single Australian rugby fan would have tuned down had they been offered it pre-game.
Yet the changes speak to a coach who knows precisely what he’s looking for from the Wallabies.
Forwards coach Geoff Parling might have talked on Thursday about the need to back players in, but ultimately Rennie’s job is to win rugby matches, not to reward men who were on the field during a decent result but were below their personal best.
The Australian lineout was poor in Game 1 both in the quality of ball it generated and the number of lost throws, particularly in the first half. The side’s attacking cleanout was similarly inaccurate.
Viewed through that lens, the changes make absolute sense. Ned Hanigan is not the same underdeveloped player still figuring out how to play his role that Wallabies fans saw when he was a regular under Michael Cheika. He was a strong lineout operator for the Waratahs this year and offers a taller, heavier body in contact than Pete Samu.
Liam Wright, while not having as solid a frame yet, is at home sticking his head into rucks and is a better lineout receiver than Rob Valetini.
Brandon Paenga-Amosa offers a less-certain improvement there, but it’s worth considering how many of the Reds’ woes at that particular set piece were due to the team’s system, rather than their hooker.
As Parling pointed out after his appointment, the Queensland hooker was one of the best throwers in Super Rugby in 2019, and Paenga-Amosa himself said in late September that national lineout set-up, after an initial learning curve, is less complex than his Reds equivalent. Pairing him with state teammate Taniela Tupou should give the front row more go-ahead at scrum time, too.
As for adding Jordan Petaia for Noah Lolesio, who didn’t get off the pine last week, it’s a no-brainer: Matt To’omua can cover flyhalf should James O’Connor go down injured; Reece Hodge or, at a stretch, Hunter Paisami can both step into 12 if To’omua goes down; and Petaia is a star-in-waiting. A player of his skill belongs in the Wallabies, and his injury history makes putting him on the bench a prudent decision.
So there are strong merits to each of the individual changes, but collectively they indicate an excellent attitude from the Wallabies brainstrust, one which acknowledges that rolling out the same team and expecting a similar or better result against the All Blacks would be foolhardy.
For a team that doesn’t get to practice it much, New Zealand are incredibly good at responding to losses.
Between 2015 and 2020, they lost just eight of their 65 Tests. In the matches immediately after those setbacks, they outscored their collective opposition 339-93. That speaks of a side which aren’t so much welcoming of adversity as just downright hostile to any perception they might not be the best team in the world.
Yes, the Bledisloe 1 thriller wasn’t a defeat, but much of the reaction to the result has been reminiscent of one. Captain Sam Cane was gutted in his post-match interview. Selector Grant Fox bristled at criticism in an appearance on The Breakdown. Assistant coach John Plumtree claimed All Blacks don’t complain about refereeing shortly after he had complained about the refereeing.
Safe to assume, then, that the on-field response tomorrow will be as fierce as if it was coming off the back of a loss. When coupled with a trip to Auckland, that has spelt naught but disaster for the Wallabies in recent times.
Two of those eight aforementioned All Blacks bounceback matches were against Australia at Eden Park. The combined scoreline? 77-13.
The venue factor will play a part on Sunday, but it’s been heartening to hear the Wallabies talk about it just being another regular-sized footy field rather than some incredible fortress which will act as a 16th man for the home side.
Of greater influence will be the New Zealand selections, after Ian Foster named a stronger side than the one deployed for Game 1. Anton Lienert-Brown will be a significant defensive upgrade in midfield on Reiko Ioane, as will Beauden Barrett at fullback.
Losing George Bridge is a blow, but the All Blacks are not short on wingers. Caleb Clarke showed in his short stint last week his powerful running game will be of great threat to the Wallabies’ defence.
Even so, there are still weaknesses. Foster didn’t get full value from Jordie Barrett when he was stuck out wide last week, yet he’ll don the no.14 jersey once again in what is clearly a case of finding a spot for your best players rather than picking your best player in each position.
The Jack Goodhue and Lienert-Brown centre pairing is strong indeed, but it’d look stronger still with Goodhue at outside centre and his partner at second-five, not the other way around.
The biggest weakness, though, is at lock. With Sam Whitelock ruled out as he goes through HIA protocols, it leaves Patrick Tuipulotu and Tupou Vaa’i as the starters with Scott Barrett on the bench. One of those second-rowers has all of 14 minutes’ Test experience, another hasn’t played a game of professional rugby since March.
It’s a clear area for the Wallabies to try to exploit, and you can be sure Hanigan, who played disruptor on a number of occasions this Super Rugby season, will be getting ready to spoil the New Zealand lineout.
So, a chance for the Wallabies to break that Eden Park hoodoo?
It is insofar as any Bledisloe game in Auckland is technically an opportunity to break that horror streak, but this match is once again the All Blacks’ to lose. They’ll expect improvement enough from the players they’ve retained from Game 1 to produce a victory, and that’s before you even consider the benefit adding Beauden Barrett and Lienert-Brown to the mix will provide.
But a victory isn’t the standard the Wallabies should be held to. Rather, just as we saw improvement last week compared to 2019, further progress this weekend should be expected, regardless of whether it ends in a win, loss or another draw.
It’s clear from their selections that’s the attitude of Rennie and his coaching staff. An improvement on the field as well, rather than the slide backwards which has so often followed recent promising performances against the All Blacks, will be proof indeed that this team is headed in precisely the right direction.