Dave Rennie, as he did with the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors, seems to have imbued the Wallabies with the mandate to “play”, to have a go, to express themselves. And to go big or die trying.
On Saturday night at Eden Park the Wallabies died to the tune of 57-22 – yet it was not for want of trying.
It’s just that their execution was very ordinary, on occasions, and gifted the All Blacks chances.
And the All Blacks, as they always do, took those chances and scored eight tries and retained the Bledisloe Cup for the 19th year in a row.
The score looks lopsided. In the end it was. The second half was all the locals. There was a 20-minute period when the black jumpers tore down field like so many orcs. And it became a rout.
Yet for the first the 46 minutes it was a competitive game of footy, like a Super rugby match played for sheep stations.
The Test match turned in the 47th minute when 101-Test man Aaron Smith sniped at the ruck base with his team down to 14 men. Cody Taylor backed up inside to score. The conversion made it 28-15.
In a blink they had fifty. And the Wallabies were shellshocked. Heads went down. Because they had been good. Showed promise. They’d competed hard and threatened to, if not win then to take the big dogs all the way.
Yet a colt, Noah Lolesio, and a veteran, Matt To’omua, threw intercept passes that looked an opportunity for both teams. And only one team took them.
The All Blacks began by screaming out the Ka Mate version of the haka. There’s a lot going on in it, lot of tongues and crazy eyes. The Wallabies formed the “V” of a boomerang, the point facing the All Blacks front-man, the idea to draw on the energy of the challenge and to use it. Scoff if you like. But symbolism matters.
Heading into the match it was widely agreed the Wallabies could not make mistakes. They made one in the first three seconds when the lifters on Darcy Swain misjudged their action.
Andrew Kellaway, who had a fair game, hammered Damien McKenzie. And it was one-error all. And the first half was set: you do it us, then we’ll do it you.
New Zealand opened the scoring when Lolesio threw a flat pass to Reiko Ioane who ran 80 metres to score.
Yet the Wallabies kept coming. Big bodies, hard at the line. Tate McDermott sniped. Rob Valetini made a big charge. Marika Koroibete probed the edges. The All Blacks infringed on purpose before Lolesio, with the advantage, bunted a tidy punt out wide to Kellaway who caught, stepped and scored.
Ten minutes in the Wallabies were down by two but on top. The All Blacks attacked, aesthetically fine, pure rugby. Short lineout. Several penalties, in range, didn’t “take the points”.
The Wallabies resisted. Matt Philip kept a maul off the ground and won a scrum. The All Blacks won another penalty and Richie Mo’unga missed the goal right.
And the Wallabies had another little victory. You lose by 35 points you take what you can.
Koroibete twice hammered Will Jordan. The crowd got into it. They’d been subdued early. But they became energised. And it was because the Wallabies had come to play. The visitors seemed to be the team that wanted it more.
And then the All Blacks went 70 metres, hot skill and support play, waves of black jumpers, men in motion, hot hands before mighty Brodie Rettalick went under the posts, smiling through his black mouthguard like Frankenstein set free.
The Wallabies came again. Gee it was a good game. Ball in motion. Offloads. Jumper pulling. Valetini and Ardie Savea had a ding-dong go. The Wallabies backs did not die wondering. They continued to play.
The crowd got into it. Rugby fans, they know a good game and appreciated a committed, strong opposition.
Pressure told and Lolesio’s penalty goal made it 14-8. Then his dud of a cross-kick gifted the All Blacks possession in the Australian 22. Of course it told. Savea crashed over. Lolesio is a work in progress. His work is rocks or diamonds.
And yet still he had a go. They all did. Kellaway came hard again. Valetini, too, he was huge the first half. Hooper did Hooper, charged up field. The All Blacks infringed, cynically, maintained a 15-man side. The Wallabies took a scrum under the posts, twice, when three points were certain.
It paid off. McDermott, who’s looked electric in gold, went under the posts and at half-time the All Blacks led by six. And the Wallabies’ path to success was clear: don’t give the All Blacks the ball.
They did and they were touched up.
And yet, as a Wallabies supporter, it was heartening to see the “have a go” spirit in action. Rennie has imbued his young men with the mandate: Be you. Do you. And go big or die trying.
They died at Eden Park on Saturday night. At least they died trying.