Wallabies supporters have seen this movie before. An excellent production followed by a sequel that had its moments but not enough to hold their attention for the duration.
As the Bledisloe Cup series moves to Australia and overlaps with the renamed Tri-Nations, the biggest question Australian rugby fans want answered is what will be served up in the third instalment?
They will be desperately hoping it’s closer to Die Hard with a Vengeance, Rocky III or Return of the Jedi, rather than The Godfather, Part III. Or The Hangover, Part III, for that matter.
Dave Rennie’s comments immediately after the 27-7 loss were typically on the money.
“Last week we tackled really well and we made minimal mistakes. We always knew that was important against the All Blacks. Today we turned the ball over a lot and then missed too many tackles. The initial tackle was poor and we got put under heat from it,” he said.
“You just can’t gift the All Blacks that much ball. They’ve got too many athletes who can hurt you and that’s what we saw today.”
The Wallabies missed 40 tackles all up and 22 in the first half alone, and that translates to a stats sheet that shows not one zero in the missed tackles column among the starting XV. Too many players falling off their defensive hits is a sure-fire way of losing any match, and especially a Test match.
Ten players in the starting side conceded turnovers, too, including all the backs from James O’Connor outwards. Only four players in total won turnovers.
There were some positives, and the lineout improvements and scrum performance lead this list. There’s also something to be said for the way the Wallabies got themselves in position to have two second-half tries disallowed in two minutes so soon after the All Blacks scored two of their own.
Too many Australian sides of the past would have crumbled after Ardie Savea scored his try in the 47th minute, and folded completely when Sam Cane crossed in the 54th. Down by 20 with 25 minutes to play, they didn’t concede another point when teams of the past would have lost that game by so much more.
How much of that will remain relevant when the Wallabies selectors meet ahead of the third Bledisloe Cup match on October 31 remains to be seen.
Rennie, fresh from dropping four players after the widely praised performance in Wellington, has already flagged changes for Sydney.
“Selection can sometimes fix that, can’t it?” he said, asked what defensive tweaks might be required.
Rennie isn’t the first and won’t be the last coach to link defensive attitude to ongoing selection. It’s not hard to imagine a few immediate attitude adjustments when players find themselves holding a tackle pad or being thrown a fluro reserve’s vest when the Wallabies next hit the training paddock.
Of course, defensive issues won’t be the only reason for changes ahead of the third match.
While the set-piece stood tall throughout, some of the forwards’ performances will come under the spotlight with good reason.
Allan Ala’alatoa was strong after replacing Taniela Tupou at halftime, and while the Reds tighthead may have earned the right to start a Test match with is Super Rugby form, the question remains unanswered whether he is best suited to a 30-minute impact role at international level.
Matt Philip was again good, yet the Wallabies received little to no impact at all from Rob Simmons when he came on. The days of the lineout specialist are surely behind us, and Philip has been a consistent 80-minute player for the last few seasons now. If he can run a lineout well and carry strongly, then surely a big-bodied lock like Trevor Hosea coming on for Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is going to have a bigger impact down the stretch.
Ned Hanigan raised eyebrows when named for the Test, but put in arguably his best-ever performance in a Wallabies jersey. It is already obvious that his natural carrying and ruck game better suits the Rennie plan than the square hole Michael Cheika tried to force his round body into.
Any remaining doubt around Matt To’omua’s importance to this Wallabies side was made abundantly clear over the final 45 minutes of the match, when Australia’s game management deteriorated, the midfield defence disintegrated, and the attack overall looked panicked and disorganised after he was forced from the field.
His fitness or otherwise will quite likely determine which other backline changes are required.
If To’omua can’t take his place, then perhaps a more experienced head in the backline like Dane Haylett-Petty is going to be needed. Tom Banks has been solid if not spectacular since his recall, but Haylett-Petty’s playmaking abilities would definitely assist what would suddenly be a raw backline.
Jordan Petaia was already getting the headlines prior to the match, and that will only ramp after Hunter Paisami was found out somewhat in defence. Marika Koroibete is in that camp too, and the question will be around whether he holds his place after tries in both games, or whether someone like Tom Wright comes in. Banks could similarly be an option out wide if Haylett-Petty is recalled at the back.
But midfield will be the biggest debate if To’omua is ruled out.
O’Connor didn’t have the greatest afternoon of steering a team around the park, which will see the calls for either Noah Lolesio or Irae Simone to come into the side. Lolesio would provide another kicking option while allowing O’Connor more time before the line one spot further out.
But Simone could provide a similar straightening influence on the attack as does To’omua, from which Petaia or Paisami and the outside backs would still be well served. That could give O’Connor a reprieve.
What hasn’t been factored in here is the Rennie cunning that isn’t so obvious.
All the options mentioned here standout and have been discussed to some degree already. But Rennie showed last week that he’s capable of selection surprises.
Having already flagged his intentions, it’s reasonable to expect the best Wallabies training attitudes of the year, as more than a few nervous players strive to have their name read out next week.