It is very hard to play a game of rugby when you cannot keep hold of the ball for more than a handful of phases before giving it away.
The problems multiply when you face an opponent who can both hang on to the pill and know exactly what they want to do with it when they have got it.
That is the scenario that the Wallabies discovered at ANZ Stadium on Saturday evening.
With both of Dave Rennie’s playmakers in chief, James O’Connor and Matt To’omua, harshly sidelined by injury, the combination of Noah Lolesio at number 10 and Irae Simone at 12 struggled to keep their heads above water on debut.
On the other side of the coin, the Kiwi combination of Richie Mo’unga at first five-eighth and Beauden Barrett at fullback looked imperious, and completely in control of the passage of events.
“The thing that worked for us was our game management particularly. I thought you saw a patient All Black performance in the first half. Sometimes we’re guilty of overplaying in certain situations but in the wet and with the way the game went, it was the area I was most proud of,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster commented at the press conference after the game.
“I thought it was one the best game-management games I’ve seen Richie [Mo’unga] play for us. Everyone knows Beaudy’s [Beauden Barrett] a class player whether he’s at 10 or at 15. It was pretty cool to see him step in at 10 and do a chip kick for Richie to score. We’ve got two good options there and that’s exciting.”
Australia could not control the injuries which prevented O’Connor and To’omua from taking their rightful places in the midfield for the start of the game. There was no way for their coaches to improve the game-management skills of Lolesio and Simone in the time available, and there was nobody else to select in their place.
Of far more concern was the failure to ‘control the controllables’, and defend well in the areas where they knew the All Blacks would attack them. Principal among those was defence of the short-side, especially from set-pieces beginning with a drive from lineout.
There was an unwelcome reminder of the ‘musical chairs’ defensive lottery from the Michael Cheika era, as New Zealand methodically took the Wallabies’ short-side defence to pieces.
The All Blacks had already given notice that they were targeting this zone in fine conditions at Eden Park the previous weekend, so what price for a repetition in the Sydney drizzle?
Here are two examples from the game in Auckland:
There is not the space to do more than hint at the full length of both mauls, and the patience the All Blacks showed in manoeuvring to get just the defensive picture they wanted. The first lineout occupied a massive 33 seconds from set-up to the break by Ardie Savea as the men in black pushed and probed. The second lasted 18 seconds.
Neither drive generates much forward momentum. New Zealand simply wait for the moment when Australia’s short-side defence switches off, and they can switch on.
In the first instance, it occurs when Savea widens out to the touchline and into a mismatch with Nic White; in the second, when the drive develops enough impetus for TJ Perenara to break down the edge against the same opponent.
In both cases, White could and probably should have made the tackle. In both cases, the Wallaby forwards inside him could have shown more urgency and awareness of the threat.
That lack of urgency and concentration was an unfortunate carry-over to events in Sydney. The first short-side incident occurred less than five minutes into the game:
Marika Koroibete makes a big hit on Mo’unga on first phase, but the Wallaby forwards completely misread the situation thereafter.
No fewer than four Australian forwards automatically wrap around to the far side of the ruck formed over the All Blacks number 10, while six of their Kiwi counterparts remain stood on the short-side!
The absence of the natural wide defender on the right (Filipo Daugunu, missing in the sin bin) makes the shift even more bewildering.
White realises the danger and scuttles back to the right, but it is far too little, far too late:
In the 13th minute, with both right wings (Daugunu and Jordie Barrett) still in the sin-bin, the All Blacks found another way to exploit the same space from a lineout drive:
As soon as he sees the Wallabies switching off, Aaron Smith gives Dane Coles a tap on the back to create the extra pair of hands on the short-side.
Meanwhile, the solitary remaining All Black wing, Caleb Clarke, has snuck around from the ten channel to become the striker down the sideline:
Clarke and Marika Koroibete are positioned directly opposite one another as the lineout sets up. Clarke swings around to the blindside as the drive grinds back and forth, and to his credit Koroibete manages to make a last-ditch, try-saving tackle at the very end of the play. But it is an uncomfortably close shave.
The placement of Koroibete in the ten channel also had a hand in the All Blacks’ second try of the game, from yet another lineout drive starter:
It is quite common for defensive teams to use their blindside wing as an extra defender in the line, in situations where there is a short backfield to defend. Koroibete’s power as a frontal stopper encourages the adoption of precisely this strategy:
Problems can occur when a defender involved in the positional swap is unaware of his new responsibilities. This is what often tended to happen when Nathan Grey was Michael Cheika’s defensive coach. In the screenshot above, you might see Bernard Foley in the tram-lines and Will Genia in the backfield, for example.
Over the weekend, the swap victim was Noah Lolesio:
Lolesio has swapped roles with Koroibete and is defending as a left winger in the backfield. Issues arise with his depth and movement towards the ball as Richie Mo’unga cuts around to the short-side against Brandon Paenga-Amosa and White:
Lolesio has to move forward positively and work with White and BPA as soon as the move develops. He can either let White jam in on Mo’unga and take the outside man (yellow arrows), or he can fill the space inside and let White drift off on to Barrett (green).
In the event, he stays back and tries to make a tackle only three metres out from his own goal-line, where the chances of success are very low.
The All Blacks took an even more direct route for their fourth try of the game:
Matt Philip takes a punt on competing at the lineout close to his own goal-line and misses, and that allows New Zealand to drive straight through the hole he has left, towards what would be the short-side of the field:
Philip and one of his lifters, Ned Hanigan, are still trying to get back onside as the drive trundles towards the Australian line. They never make it in time.
The men in black went on using the short-side with profit in the second period too:
The All Blacks make sure they knock down White at the cleanout following the pick-and-go by Coles, and that leaves no backline defenders on the edge of the short-side on the following play:
It was an unwanted irony that the final knockout was scored off a scrum rather than a lineout. It didn’t matter, because the play was still going to a short-side where the Kiwis had found so much joy in the course of the game:
Dave Rennie and his coaching staff will be concerned that the scorelines in the Bledisloe Cup series are moving in the wrong direction – from 16-16 at the Cake Tin to 7-27 at Eden Park and 5-43 in Sydney.
His defensive coach, Matt Taylor, will be especially worried that the New Zealand try-count is increasing, from two in Wellington to four one week later and six in Sydney.
The Wallabies are losing their grip on the processes involved in how to stop the Kiwis scoring more than 15 or 16 points, which Rennie knew was essential to a chance of success against his trans-Tasman rivals.
Nowhere is this more true than in the defence of the short-side from set-piece, where Australia seem unable to respond to the All Blacks’ variations and late movement on attack.
One thing is certain as the Bledisloe show moves onto Brisbane for the final game of the series: the Wallabies cannot afford to let themselves be blindsided again.