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Caleb Clarke's performance to the Wallabies' defensive wobbles: Four talking points from Bledisloe 2

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Editor
18th October, 2020
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Another game at Eden Park, another All Blacks victory. New Zealand are on the verge of retaining the Bledisloe Cup after their 27-7 win in Game 2.

The result doesn’t come as a great surprise, but the scoreline was more dominant than the actual match. And that’s a decent place to start our Bledisloe 2 talking points.

Wallabies closer than the scoreline suggests
The Wallabies didn’t play like 20-point losers at Eden Park, with the painfully obvious exception of the 15 minutes after halftime. The All Blacks were at their ruthless best then, dominating that critical period after the break to end the contest with more than a quarter of the match still left to run.

Australia enjoyed more territory and possession early on for the second week in a row – both of those measures were dead even at full-time.

Also promising for Dave Rennie was that the lineout operated far better than in Wellington, with just one errant throw for the entire afternoon, and the scrum was also much improved even with a couple of dominant shunts from All Blacks debutant Alex Hodgman.

Ultimately when appraising the Australian performance, we must remember that New Zealand were a far, far better side than they were in Game 1 – and were always going to be.

Caleb Clarke was a revelation in his first start in the black jersey, Beauden Barrett added far more at fullback (albeit in friendlier conditions) than Damian McKenzie did, Jack Goodhue was one of a number of All Blacks to improve markedly from their showings last week, and the entire team’s defence was outstanding.

When Aaron Smith crossed shortly after a penalty goal, the All Blacks were on the verge of closing the game out before halftime. That the Wallabies were able to respond with a try of their own, and didn’t concede again before the break, was pleasing for Australian fans familiar with morale-crushing opposition scores late in halves.

Even between New Zealand’s third and fourth tries, the visitors went deep into attacking territory and only the TMO (rightly) stopped Brandon Paenga-Amosa from pulling a five-pointer back.

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Even though Sam Cane went onto score shortly after, there was enough to suggest the Wallabies have more ticker and are more likely to stay in contests longer than what their supporters have become accustomed to in previous years.

Ned Hanigan of the Wallabies makes a break

Ned Hanigan. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

But…
Enjoy those positives? Great, because the negatives were far more plentiful.

While the Wallabies did have better field position early on, even in the frenetic opening passages of the game it was clear they had failed to address their weakness at the attacking breakdown. Too often gold jerseys were hopelessly isolated after a tackle, with Ardie Savea and Sam Cane seemingly always able to get their hands on the ball.

As a result, by my count there were at least five or six turnovers conceded in the first 25 minutes – although two were immediately pinched straight back.

That on its own made compiling strings of phases together difficult enough, but when paired with the slew of handling errors the Wallabies coughed up it became nigh-on impossible.

Australia made some 19 offloads in the game, their most since 2016, but too often they forced the extra pass when it wasn’t on. The attack was disjointed and not at all composed, and it provided New Zealand ample opportunities to counter-attack in broken play – a scenario in which they are lethal.

After dominating the kicking battle in Wellington and using the conditions there far better than the All Blacks, the Wallabies were completely outplayed in that area of the game today. While the side’s kicks in the series opener almost always led to even contests between receiver and chasers, the opposite was true in Auckland.

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Barrett and Clarke were rarely challenged under the high ball and were constantly gifted too much space on kick returns by absent chasers.

That contributed to a number of missed tackles, but the Australian defence struggled all afternoon to stop opposition runners regardless of the scenario. After being miserly without the ball in Game 1, the men in gold missed more than a quarter of their tackles, falling off 22 in the first half then 18 in the second.

At the start of the series, Rennie identified keeping the All Blacks to 15 or 16 points as a key factor in beating them. That’s never going to happen when you finish a Test with a successful tackle rate of 73 per cent.

Matt Philip of the Wallabies and teammates look dejected

Matt Philip. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Wanted: Someone who knows how to tackle Caleb Clarke
Caleb Clarke showed enough in his short stint off the bench in Game 1 that he may have been handed a start today regardless of George Bridge’s fitness. At any rate, Bridge’s unfortunate torn pectoral muscle made the decision for New Zealand’s selectors easy, and after his Eden Park performance, Ian Foster will be keeping the youngster in the XV for many, many more Tests.

Australia’s aforementioned aimless kicking made Clarke’s role easier than it should have been, but even in phase play he was never easy to bring down.

According to Opta, he finished the match having beaten 12 defenders, but it seemed like he’d left twice as many in his wake in the 65 minutes he was on the field.

While the 21-year-old didn’t get on the scoresheet, Ardie Savea’s try was all down to Clarke’s incredible bruising run when he received a James O’Connor kick on his own 40-metre line, burst through the first line of defenders, bounced up off the ground after Tom Banks and Marika Koroibete couldn’t complete a tackle, before finally being brought down 15 metres out by Nic White. Savea strolled over the very next phase.

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It’s going to become one of those ‘where were you when…?’ events fans will discuss many years into the future, a short moment when a new star announced himself to Test rugby.

The Jonah Lomu comparisons are inevitable and not particularly fair on a young man who looks set for superstardom on his own merits. But on top of being a charismatic, likeable character off the field, Clarke has all the tools necessary to live up to the legacy of the famous no.11 jersey he wore with such aplomb at Eden Park.

New Zealand's Caleb Clarke catches the ball

Caleb Clarke. (Photo by Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty Images)

What will change in two weeks?
Rennie showed on Thursday he’s not afraid to make changes after sub-par performances, and hinted in his post-match press conference that he could look to address the Wallabies’ appalling tackle numbers at the selection table.

It looks as if he’ll be forced into at least one change following Matt To’omua’s injury. Australia missed their inside centre dearly after he tweaked his groin late in the first half, their defence and attack both looking less organised with the veteran off the ground.

The injury’s seriousness isn’t yet known, but given he left the field in the Rebels’ Super Rugby AU semi-final with the same issue, returning for Bledisloe 3 in 13 days is unlikely.

Hunter Paisami shifted to 12 when To’omua off and is one possibility to take his place in Sydney, although the fact Rennie mentioned Irae Simone as a possible replacement indicates the Brumbies midfielder may have the inside lane for a Test debut in two weeks’ time.

Jordan Petaia was lively after coming on for To’omua and will surely start at outside centre in Game 3 providing he pulls up well. He’ll offer a more reliable option in defence than Paisami, who is still a work in progress on that side of the ball.

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It’s hard to find an obvious change in the forward pack. Ned Hanigan was one of the Wallabies’ best in his return to Test rugby, Harry Wilson was far more physical than a man who recently spent 36 hours in hospital should be capable of, and Brandon Paenga-Amosa provided a notable improvement at the set-piece.

James Slipper and Taniela Tupou have performed well as the starting props – although the latter will have his kicking license torn up after a shocker in the lead-up to the All Blacks’ opening points – and so too have Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip in the second row.

An extra week of preparation may facilitate more of an improvement than any tinkering with the line-up. It’s easy to forget given this is a better-looking Wallabies side than last year’s iteration, but they’ve only spent a grand total of four weeks in camp with a brand new coach this season.

Eden Park may have been one step back after two forward in Wellington, but the team is still headed in the right direction. Today’s loss doesn’t change the Bledisloe equation: the Wallabies need to win two games to regain the long-lost cup. Now they just have to get both those victories at home.