Now that was the performance Wallabies fans were waiting for. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But it ended in a 24-22 win against the All Blacks and, experimental team or not, they just don’t come around too often.
Finally, some improvement
After Bledisloe 1, each of the Wallabies’ subsequent outings were a step backwards. While some specific areas did improve from week to week (the lineout in Game 2, for example), overall the performances were going in entirely the wrong direction.
Admittedly it would have taken something catastrophically impressive for last night’s performance to be worse than the one dished up in Sydney, but the completeness of the improvement in Game 4 will have Australian fans beaming – that and the result.
A few areas stood out. The physicality in contact was the best it had been since Game 1. There were fewer forced offloads, and ball retention was better as a result. There was less shuffling in the defensive line.
There were also a number of individuals who stepped right up. Michael Hooper, after two quiet games, was immense, as was Taniela Tupou off the bench. Matt Philip had his best outing as a Wallaby. All the attention will be on Marika Koroibete’s game-sealing (or should that be game-saving?) hit on Damian McKenzie, but he put on a number of massive shots throughout the game, and was one of the best ball-runners in gold.
As an aside on the winger, could someone get his an even tighter jersey? There were two times in the first half where he would have been through the line but for an All Black holding onto his shirt.
In short, Wallabies fans were desperate to see some improvement, particularly after how demoralising last week was. They got it, and then some.
Rennie’s reshuffle works a treat
When Dave Rennie made some nine changes to the Bledisloe 4 team, there were justified criticisms. There was a hint of knee-jerkiness, a slight whiff of desperation – even though the reasoning behind most of the switches was clear enough.
As it was, all of the selections were spot on. Reece Hodge was superb at flyhalf. He kicked well for goal – one nervous shank notwithstanding – and his neat chip for Tom Wright’s opener was well at odds with the notion that the phrase “good kicking game”, when applied to the Melbourne Rebel, simply means “can kick the ball a long way”.
He straightened up the attack nicely, ran at the line, and defended strongly. After years of bouncing around both the Australian and Melbourne backline, you have to wonder if it’s worth giving him an extended stint as a big-bodied ten.
Rob Simmons enjoyed a good game at lock, Tom Banks put in his best shift with ball in hand, and Hunter Paisami showed he could have a future at 12 with some hard running and nice distribution.
A word of praise, too, must go Noah Lolesio’s way, who looked far more like his usual self after coming off the bench than he did last week, often testing the All Blacks defence with his nimble footwork. After taking such a hammering on debut, to come back with a confident cameo just a week later was impressive.
This week’s first-gamers all showed why they were worthy selections. Tom Wright scored just three minutes into his Test career, made a number of nice runs – including the one which led to Ofa Tuungafasi’s dismissal (more on that later), and in the second half showed incredible strength and awareness to somehow stay in the field when being bundled into touch seemed inevitable.
Angus Bell brought far more dynamism from the bench than what Scott Sio had, and the scrum held up well and even dominated at times during his half-and-a-bit on the field – although it was a real shame to see James Slipper forced off with injury in his hundredth Test.
As for Lachie Swinton, for the first half-hour he brought the exact aggression which the Wallabies had been lacking. In the 35th minute, he brought too much of it, collecting Sam Whitelock high and being deservedly sent off. It was a stupid, careless play, but if he can temper that approach and cut those costly errors without losing his edge, he’s exactly the type of player who’ll play more Test rugby, if for no other reason than opponents will despise playing against him.
Keep it in perspective
Pleasing as the win was for Australian rugby fans, it does not mean the side is suddenly exactly where they need to be.
While the improvements on last week were vast, some problem areas still require attention. The breakdown is one, with the Wallabies still too susceptible to giving away turnovers in god positions, and maul defence is another. The string of penalties conceded at the end of the first half could have proved very costly indeed had Philip not come up with a superb lineout steal.
Being able to capitalise on strong field position is also crucial. Immediately after Tuungafasi’s red, Australia were camped on the New Zealand line, but were unable to gain any scoreboard reward for their dominance. It didn’t end up being a factor in the result, but that’s a rare thing indeed against a side as good as the All Blacks.
That will become less of a concern as Rennie and assistant Scott Wisemantel have more time to develop their attacking structure, but strong Test sides have a habit of leaving the opposition with points. On the flipside, the Wallabies improved on that front in the second half, content to count in threes when given the opportunity to kick for goal.
Also worth keeping firmly in mind is this was an experimental All Blacks side they were up against, one which missed Richie Mo’unga’s controlling influence and Jack Goodhue’s presence in midfield.
That said, it still contained Sam Cane, three Barrett brothers, Sam Whitelock, Ardie Savea and a raft of other incredible players. Different maybe, but it wasn’t a weak side. Plus, to roll out an oft-used cliche, you can only play what’s in front of you.
So yes, this win doesn’t carry with it the weight of, say, a victory against a settled All Blacks 23 with the Bledisloe Cup still alive. But that doesn’t diminish it entirely – far from it.
Don’t see red about the send-offs
When Ofa Tuungafasi was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Tom Wright, an outraged clamour about how rugby is being ruined by overzealous officiating was inevitable. Lachie Swinton’s red card only meant those cries would be coming from both sides of the Tasman.
However, rather than direct your anger at referee Nic Berry for issuing the reds, would it not make sense to, oh, I dunno, ask defenders to not hit opposition players in the head?
Radical, I know, but hear me out.
Sometime in the future, sports historians will look back and see rugby was right to be ahead of other contact sports in legislating so vigorously against high contact. It’s bizarre that you have to say it, but player safety is far more important than entertainment value or some ethereal idea of rugby being a tough sport because it’s kind of alright to hit someone in the head.
These are the facts: Tuungafasi hit Wright with his shoulder, with force, in the chin. Swinton hit Sam Whitelock with his shoulder, with force, in the chin.
Both red cards, both fairly clear cut.
Is there a discussion to be had about limiting the game-altering influence of those moments, when, while there’s force and dangerous contact, there isn’t any malice? Absolutely. The idea of the orange card – whereby the offending player is sent off for the game for this kind of infringement, but a replacement is permitted after 20 minutes – has considerable merit, although it’s certainly not to everyone’s liking.
But there’s no guarantee that will ever be introduced. So if you want your team to play with 15 players, rather than complaining about their punishment, maybe instead ask that they don’t hit opposition players in the head.
A Bledisloe pass mark for the Wallabies
Four games against the All Blacks for two losses, one draw (in New Zealand at that) and a win.
It doesn’t win you the Bledisloe Cup, but Dave Rennie would have taken that before the series started, even if the manner of the Sydney defeat still leaves a bitter taste for Wallabies fans.
Despite that capitulation, it is clear the side is on the right track under Rennie. He has changed his team perhaps slightly too willingly, but he’s also still very much in the process of figuring out what exactly his best lineup is. Injuries have complicated that process, too.
New players have established themselves in the side: Philip at lock and Harry Wilson at number eight are the two most concrete examples, but cases too can be made for Brandon Paenga-Amosa at hooker and Tom Banks at fullback. Who knows, we may look back on the Suncorp Stadium match years down the line and pinpoint it as the night Reece Hodge established him as an international flyhalf (we also may not).
Two more Tests against Argentina await which, in addition to being banana-peel matches which the Wallabies ought to be cautious of slipping on, serve as both two further opportunities to try out different players and get closer to figuring out an ideal squad, and a chance to build some winning momentum.
2017 was the last time Australia won three consecutive Test matches. Succeed in the two against Los Pumas, and they’ll have done just that. It would be far from the worse way to end the first season under a new coach.