The aftermath of last year’s Bledisloe Cup match in Melbourne, won by the All Blacks 39-37, after referee Mathieu Raynal insisted Bernard Foley shake things along faster than what he was comfortable with, was the most confusing I’ve experienced following any rugby match.
It might not always seem obvious to readers, but the task of writing about a game is always made easier when there is a clear understanding of what just played out. Sitting alone in a darkened room, well past midnight, trying to make sense of the mayhem, was not one of those moments.
The contrast to this year’s 38-7 win by the All Blacks, played in front of just under 84,000 at the MCG, couldn’t be starker.
Nothing lost in translation, no hidden messages, no last gasp heroics or heartbreak. Just two sides at demonstrably different stages of their development, doing more or less what was expected of them, each with a clear pathway up to and into the World Cup.
One of the characteristics of Wallabies coach Eddie Jones is that, outside of his inner circle, you can never quite be sure what is said in jest, what is said to pump up the profile of the sport, and what is genuinely introspective.
His post-match press conference illustrated that beautifully, with Jones inviting all and sundry to blame him for the loss, before pointing to the first half of both halves as evidence that his side is making progress.
I’m not buying the first one for a second; Jones knows he has a blank sheet, with his assignment due for submission on due date of Saturday 28th October; not this week or next. He invites criticism of himself because he knows it can’t be fully justified, and because it shields his players.
On the second point, I am inclined to buy what Jones is selling, and it is here where the framing of this loss as a Dave Rennie versus Eddie Jones, 38% versus 0% proposition, is all wrong.
Wallabies’ fans are paying for this result and two decades of similar let-downs, because Australian rugby’s historical, structural, geographic, commercial, political and cultural impediments have never been adequately recognised and addressed. Not because Jones. Not because Rennie.
That will change only when there is a leader emerge with the vision, credibility, work ethic and persuasiveness to align all of rugby in Australia behind a cohesive plan to drag its high-performance program into global rugby’s top echelon, and simultaneously, reconnect all strands of the game together.
Where Rennie versus Jones is relevant, is that Rennie invested three years of what he assumed was a four-year World Cup cycle, into trying out a wide range of players and combinations. This year would have seen the focus narrow and selection continuity increase, to meet a rightful expectation of converting some of 2022’s close losses into wins.
But instead of stepping forward off what appeared – to many fair observers – to be a steadily firming base, Jones’ appointment immediately threw the switch back into development mode.
From Jones’ perspective that’s fair enough; he’s never been one to apply the icing to someone else’s cake. But with only a five-Test runway into a World Cup, that’s really too late in the day to be reverting to finding out who can play and who can’t, and at the same time, be expecting the Wallabies to offer a credible presence in France.
That folly – or genius – will form the basis for judgment of Rugby Australia chairman, Hamish McLennan; well ahead of the time Joseph Suaalii is scheduled to ride in as Australian rugby’s latest ‘white knight’.
In the meantime, Jones is right to point to demonstrable progress having been made in three matches.
The main criticism of the Wallabies in South Africa was that they asked no hard questions of their opponent. This was not the case here. For two quarters, the Wallabies fronted and looked and felt like an international rugby team.
There was shape and variation in attack, and a defensive line that wrestled hard in the tackle and was often successful in slowing down the All Black’s recycle, and putting pressure on Aaron Smith.
While hard-to-please All Blacks’ fans lament their side’s inability to carve the Wallabies up at will, coach Ian Foster had it right afterwards when he acknowledged the Wallabies combativeness.
Note also how the Wallabies’ defensive effort wasn’t compromised by the usual concession of cheap penalties for offside or breakdown infringements. Tom Hooper’s 30 tackles, complemented by Rob Valetini (20) and Nick Frost (23), hint at better days ahead.
Improved discipline in general play only made it the more confounding that another two players were lost during the match to yellow cards; twenty costly minutes where four of New Zealand’s six tries were scored.
Also pleasing was the Wallabies’ lineout; clean with crisp and accurate throwing, albeit the decision to go straight off the top to Tate McDermott on his own goal-line in the fourth minute, leaving the door open and the red carpet laid out for Scott Barrett, showed a startling lack of match awareness.
Angus Bell got more minutes than he would have expected, but that only allowed him to display more of his enormous – and still untapped – talent. Bell’s pace is remarkable for a man of his size; surely making him world rugby’s pre-eminent kinetic energy generator.
On the downside, there were the familiar individual lapses, including a straightforward penalty miss from new flyhalf Carter Gordon, added to a failed re-start. Gordon has oodles of talent and a thick skin. He’ll need it; after all, Quade Cooper has never been forgiven for kicking off on the full against the All Blacks, in Auckland, in 2011.
Jones identified ‘red zone’ conversion as another necessary work-on, no better highlighted by the try scored by Will Jordan after the halftime siren, where the All Blacks patiently probed through 21 phases before finally creating an opportunity for their star winger.
By contrast, presented with an opportunity from the 2nd half kick-off courtesy of a Will Skelton steal, instead of applying immediate pressure on the All Blacks’ line, Jordan Petaia let them off the hook with a meaningless, ‘soft option’ grubber.
For all the starch in the defensive line, questions remain about the role of Marika Koroibete, for two of the All Blacks’ tries, found too far infield, in motion, looking to cover too many men.
The biggest concern for Jones however is on the tighthead side of the scrum, with Alan Ala’alatoa suffering a long-term Achilles injury, and Taniela Tupou clearly a long way from true Test match-level fitness.
Thinking on his feet afterwards, Jones offered up the prospect of switching James Slipper across, or looking to Zane Nonggorr; neither prospect likely to send shivers through the rest of the global rugby community.
Whatever happens in the front row, the Wallabies must continue their improvement in Dunedin next weekend. Almost certainly, the All Blacks will make changes; not out of disrespect, but because they need to get game time into a number of their players, and finalise the last couple of World Cup places.
Some that reasoning applies to Jones as well, but if the Wallabies can regroup quickly this week, the opportunity is there for another step forward.
Meanwhile, in the black corner, there are few concerns on the injury front, delight at the retention of the Bledisloe Cup, and further validation of the decision to determine the futures of Foster and Scott Robertson ahead of the pressure cooker environment of the World Cup.
Important players have carried their Super Rugby form into the internationals; Scott Barrett and Mark Telea at the top of that list, while new halfback Cam Roigard made a good fist of the first of what will surely be many Test matches to come.
At flyhalf, Richie Mo’unga continues to operate in the sweet spot between freedom of expression and respect for the basics of Test rugby; always a threat because of his speed. He was also unlucky not to be awarded a spectacular try, after a back-tracking, fumbling Koroibete was afforded more protection by the officials than what he probably deserved.
Both Barrett and Telea featured in the try of the match in the 65th minute; the All Blacks going ‘coast to coast’ from a kick-off, with Telea’s footwork on Koroibete a hybrid glide/shimmy of exquisite beauty.
Afterwards I queried Foster on whether the All Blacks’ hammering the blindside was a tactic designed specifically for the Wallabies, or a continuation of the desire shown this year to play a more direct, confrontational game, to avoid being caught playing behind the advantage line in midfield?
“A bit of both,” was his answer, and while some fans were frustrated by the All Blacks’ apparent lack of ambition, I’d offer that this is a sign of the growing maturity of this side, prepared to roll up the sleeves and batter an opponent into submission, rather than expect doors to open in the wider channels as of right.
With the Wallabies forced to make 248 tackles, there was always going to be a pay-off late in the match; as there was when three tries came in quick succession.
Another star of the match was referee Wayne Barnes, who has mastered the art of simultaneously imposing his authority on a match, whilst getting out of the way and letting the players play.
Unless England come from the clouds in France – remembering that they are on the same ‘friendly’ side of the draw as Australia – Barnes looks to be a lock for the World Cup final.
The other winner on the night was Melbourne, albeit with some qualifications. Despite widespread negativity around the Andrews’ state government ditching the Commonwealth Games, the 83,499 roll up – the largest Wallabies home crowd since 2001, for a side not expected to win – puts Melbourne clearly in the frame for 2027 World Cup final hosting rights.
That number would become 100,000 for the final and, along with whatever cash the state government throws in as a sweetener on top – because that’s what all governments do when they chase vanity projects like this – the case for the MCG hosting the final, with both semis going to Sydney as consolation, would be compelling.
That’s where the fun ends, however. The trade-off for having 100,000 people at a rugby game in a cricket/AFL stadium, is that most of them sit two postcodes away from the action.
If it’s atmosphere you want, 26,000 people at CommBank Stadium, Parramatta, is a much better option. But of course, that’s not how these things work.
The hard times suffered by Wallabies supporters over recent years, and again here, with another match fallen by the wayside, are impactful and hurtful. Last week’s dozen reasons why the Wallabies can’t win the World Cup, remain.
At least Rugby Australia are able to bank a mini-windfall from a gate given a kick-along by the incessant and self-less promotion of rugby undertaken by Jones.
How big will the MCG need to be if one day, the hope that Jones is selling turns into reality, and the Wallabies start winning?