For years, New Zealanders have had a love/hate – mostly hate – relationship with the maul.
It’s long been considered little more than a northern hemisphere conspiracy, designed to stop the All Blacks playing ‘real rugby’, or, in more recent times, something the Brumbies turn to for easy points.
But there is a quiet revolution occurring, with All Blacks’ head coach Ian Foster and forwards coach John Plumtree turning to the maul as a foundation pillar from which to dominate the Wallabies – firstly in Auckland, to help nullify the rushing defence that the Wallabies had so bothered them with in Wellington, then again in Sydney on Saturday night.
By the half-hour, the All Blacks had pocketed four tries and killed the contest stone dead. Three of those tries came directly off the back of a dominant, attacking maul.
Prop Karl Tu’inukuafe’s ungainly finish won’t live in the memory, but the space for his try was created by a powerful maul that surged towards the Wallabies’ line, a quick thrust to centrefield to draw in the backline defenders and straggling forwards, before a fast switch back to a blindside stacked with All Blacks with only open space in front of them.
So dominant was another All Blacks’ maul that Richie Mo’unga had time to switch direction behind it, and skin Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Noah Loelsio to score the second try; all without needing to concern himself with fringe defenders who hadn’t transitioned quickly enough from trying to prevent the maul drive.
The fourth try, a lineout maul drive to Dane Coles, was as inevitable as Nic White – brandishing some kind of mark of the beast on his forehead – whining to the referee. It was, as far as lineout maul tries go at this level, too soft a concession.
The lead-up to Coles’ try also highlighted another point of difference, New Zealand getting their tactics right for a slippery night, plugging the blindside, and frequently pinning the Wallabies deep in their own half with well-placed kicks. On this occasion it was Jack Goodhue, off a turnover, using his left boot to isolate Lolesio, to force the holding on penalty, from whence came the five metre lineout.
It wasn’t all ‘hoof it and hope’, with the All Blacks also profiting from a clever short kicking game; Beauden Barrett and Mo’unga deadly in exposing a confused Wallabies’ backfield, for Mo’unga to race away for his second.
Not that it was all roses for the All Blacks. They were equal contributors to what was a dire 25 minutes of rugby after halftime, although a two-try flourish near the end, saw smiles return.
There was even a redemption of sorts for Rieko Ioane, his two-handed put down not missed by anybody watching, after having been superbly set up by new No.8 Hoskins Sotutu.
The immediate reaction was to blame the Wallabies for being asleep on the short side, but look again at the speed of Codie Taylor’s strike, and how quickly Sotutu was off the back of the scrum to lob a perfect pass into space for Ioane to run on to. Deceptively simple, delightfully executed, and – at that speed – almost impossible to stop.
The Wallabies’ problems started right from the first whistle – the kick-off floating too deep, allowing Barrett an unchallenged clearance to half-way. But it was a moment of madness from Filipo Daugunu – unfortunately not untypical – which started them on the slippery slope downwards.
Sure, Daugunu was nudged into contact by Sam Cane, but any prospect of mitigation was destroyed by Daugunu’s actions in wrapping his arms around Caleb Clarke’s legs, effectively tackling him in mid-air.
Accordingly, the Wallabies lost any hope of controlling the match early, and without the experience of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua to help arrest things, they struggled all half to gain any kind of traction.
Right from the first try, there was a palpable sense of the Wallabies chasing the game. With that came a propensity for loose ball control, and a breakdown in the cohesive team play from the first Test in Wellington, with players acting as individuals, grubbering ahead instead of pressuring the All Blacks as a unit.
These failings under pressure are of course reflective of a new, developing side, one which contains a handful of players still finding their feet at Test level, or who, in some cases, are in the process of being found out.
There were signs that work-ons from the New Zealand leg had been addressed – improved lineout execution, White keeping Caleb Clarke on a tight leash with some well-placed kicking, and the Wallabies forwards strong on the tackle in close contact, giving as good as they got.
But this is a side that hasn’t been done any favours by the COVID-ravaged schedule. Four matches against the All Blacks, straight off the bat, is no way for any new side to take its first steps. It is understandable for fans to feel frustration and exasperation at this defeat, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that eighteen years-worth of Wallabies before them, have fallen at the same Bledisloe Cup hurdle.
It was obviously a tough night for a debutant, but Noah Lolesio is a fine young footballer and he will enjoy many happier days in a Wallabies jersey. He will also benefit from being provided with the confidence tick that comes with being allowed to defend in the front line.
Ditto Daugunu, but only if he can learn that such lapses in discipline can’t be tolerated at this level.
But for now, Dave Rennie and his coaching staff will reflect on how long-standing comparative deficiencies in experience, self-belief, skill and pace all add up to a task far more onerous and difficult than can hope to be resolved in just three or four matches.
Two common factors throughout this Bledisloe Cup reign are the All Blacks, every time they are challenged, ramping up attrition levels in the pack, and unleashing superior scoring strike power.
This Wallabies’ pack is a work-in-progress and, for as long as Brodie Retallick remains in Japan, the difference is not profound. What is harder to bridge is the deficit in all-round skill, pace and confidence; the ability to flick a switch, go up a couple of gears, and put 14 points into the match in an instant.
Critics can moan all they like about selection and the new coaching team, but who exactly are Australia’s Barrett, Mo’unga and Clarke? Who is the hooker, standing wide on the sideline, steaming on to a perfectly placed kick or pass with the dash of a winger; like Dane Coles did here, or Codie Taylor did against the Lions?
Meaningless now in the context of the result, the ‘no-try’ ruling by TMO Angus Gardner against Coles in the 11th minute, posed an interesting talking point. Coles himself appeared unconvinced he had scored, but with commentators misleading viewers by arguing the toss on matters of ‘control’ – a definition that doesn’t actually appear in the law book – a strong case can be mounted against the ‘no try’ ruling.
Law 21.1.b concerns grounding the ball in goal, stating that the ball can be grounded by, “pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player’s body from waist to neck”.
By forcing the ball with his torso, Coles unquestionably satisfied this requirement for grounding the ball. At issue was his initial attempt to ground it with his hands, touching it first on the side of the ball, as he slid along the ground.
This opened up a case for him having knocked the ball on, although with referee Ben O’Keeffe having checked with his assistant and already awarded a try, there needed to be clear and obvious evidence of a knock-on to warrant the try being disallowed. As untidy as it all looked, I’m not convinced Coles clearly and obviously propelled the ball forward with his hand; Gardner’s intervention thus robbing him of a match double.
From Wales came the sad announcement of the death of winger JJ Williams, only nine days after the death of his rugby coach brother, Peter. Like all great players, Williams had the knack of making difficult things look easy, and I have a vivid memory of him gliding across the hallowed turf of the Taumarunui Domain to score for the 1977 Lions – a ground where as a youngster, having finished ball boy duties, and while the adults adjourned to the clubhouse, I myself scored many Test tries, albeit against imaginary opposition.
A wonderful player, all fluid grace and speed, for Wales and on the end of a talented Lions backline, Williams’ passing, at the ‘too young’ age of 72, is a sad loss for the game.
While the All Blacks broke one record on Saturday night – their 38-point winning margin now the biggest against Australia in their 117-year rivalry – another record was lost when Richie McCaw’s world record of 148 Tests was eclipsed by Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones.
As is often the case in milestone matches, it was an unhappy result for Wyn Jones, Wales losing 14-10 to Scotland, and there being no crowd in attendance to mark his achievement.
Nevertheless, Wyn Jones is an enormously popular and respected figure in rugby – a warrior on the pitch and a gentleman off it – and he will be paid due acknowledgment.
And while there are no statistics to back it up, over his now 149 Test matches, I’d wager that he’s also been involved in more mauls than any other player in Test history. Enough to appreciate exactly what Ian Foster and the All Blacks are now up to.