For 40 minutes the sun shone in the Wallabies’ new dawn, as young halves Tate McDermott and Carter Gordon led the Australians to their first half-time lead against the All Blacks in four years. And then, inevitably, the black mist rolled in.
Australia came agonisingly close to winning on New Zealand soil for the first time since 2001, a Richie Mo’unga penalty in the last minutes breaking a 20-20 deadlock.
Gordon was a mere 194 days old the last time Australia tasted success – also in Dunedin, at Carisbrook which is now a Bunnings style supply store PlaceMakers instead of the fabled House of Pain.
You can change the name, but the pain, just as it was in Wellington in 2020 and Dunedin three years earlier in 2017, is eternal for Australians in New Zealand, no matter who dons the black jersey.
McDermott said that despite the defeat Australia was “trending in the right direction.” That might be open for debate but what he said next wasn’t as he addressed Wallaby fans: “It’s frustrating here, particularly for the guys back home, [it] must do your head in.”
He added: “But we truly believe what we’re doing, particularly in the attack space, is going to work a treat for us in the future.”
New Zealand made 12 changes and among them were the second string halves combinations of Finlay Christie and Damian McKenzie. In the first half the young Australian combination looked superior but the New Zealanders had big guns in reserve and they made a decisive difference off the back of front-foot ball and a dominance at the breakdown and scrum.
Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga, both of whom are headed overseas next year and potentially playing a home Test for the final time, got the All Blacks across the line after Nic White and Quade Cooper combined for a fatal error.
McDermott, leading Australia for the first time and had some excellent moments, but also some that he will rue.
He managed to sneak across the line with the Wallabies leading 17-3 in the first half but was denied a try by Ardie Savea’s hustle to hold the ball up.
He also dithered – Bernard Foley style – on getting a line out set late in the half after Gordon’s raking kick gave the Australians an excellent chance to score a try before the break.
Jones was furious midweek when his selection of Gordon to start in the 38-7 loss last week was questioned, and the 22-year-old stepped up another level in the opening 40 minutes.
But momentum shifted when the changes were made in the second term and both teams rolled out there bench players.
Mo’unga replaced the ineffectual McKenzie on just 49 minutes and Smith, 10 years McDermott’s senior, came on four minutes later. It was their industry and drive that carried the All Blacks from well behind to in front.
That pair had 10 minutes at the young Australian halves before Eddie Jones went to his bench and produced his own veteran duo for the final charge, but White and Cooper didn’t pack the same punch.
“If you compare the first half to the second half, Wallabies were in control of the pace of the game. They were
executing well, one or two passes wide of the ruck. Players in motion. Simplicity, the simplicity was key,” said Justin Harrison on the Stan coverage.
“What we’re seeing now is the All Blacks able to put the Wallabies under pressure, force them away from the game plan, make some early decisions by getting some turnovers at breakdown, marching forward. The simplicity with which the All Blacks are moving through the phases is alarming at the moment.”
Midweek Jones explained that part of his thinking to go all in on Gordon from the start ahead of Cooper was that that latter was not the Wallabies future. There must be questions if he’s an effective part of the present.
There was some trademark Zen focus as he levelled the scores inside the last 10 minutes with a long-range penalty that sneaked over, but he played a central role in opening the way for the All Blacks win.
Having survived 22 phases of defence when Mo’unga shovelled a cross-field kick into touch, the Wallabies were building towards the halfway line when White passed a slightly low ball to Cooper, and the veteran No.10 made a schoolboy error, taking his eyes off it momentarily and the ball was knocked on
“His brain was moving quicker than his hands,” said Morgan Turinui on the Stan coverage.
“He’d seen the little opportunity down the blindside. The Wallabies did well off a fractured maul. Got advancing ball and punched through the middle. Isn’t it so much in big games about doing the basics well?”
That’s something the All Blacks excel at. From there they took control and paced the game to a winning conclusion.
“Well, it was no good. It’s a bad feeling. We should’ve won that game,” said Eddie Jones. “We did enough to win that game but we don’t have the capacity to keep doing the simple things well.
“We’re focused on the right things but we can’t do it for long enough at the moment.”
Jones was criticised by New Zealanders for going with youth ahead of the match, but in the clutch moment his biggest name failed him.
McDermott, 24, and Gordon, 22, will both learn. One thing’s for certain, if they ever do get to taste victory on NZ soil, it will be days like this that help fuel them.
It can’t be ideal that Gordon is on such a steep learning curve less than five weeks out from the start of the World Cup.
“Last week was a big game for me. Having that game under my belt definitely gave me a lot of confidence coming into this game,” he said.
McDermott, not for the first time this year, and likely not the last, was “gutted”.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to win it. We were chasing our tails that whole second half,” McDermott said.
“You have to give them credit for the way they came out of the blocks. Obviously we’re not happy with losing but from where we were last week to where we are now it’s a massive step-up.
“What we did really well in the first half, we retained the footy because of our speed to set and our urgency at the breakdown. We lost that in the second half. We turned over a lot of possession.”
Push come to shove, when it came time to change the playmakers, the All Blacks veterans slayed the Australians. In a game of eight halves, two of them – Smith and Mo’unga – were on a different level.
Sonny Bill Williams is often maligned for stating the bleeding obvious, but his summation really did nail it.
“Missed opportunities come to mind when it comes to the Wallabies. It was their best performance of the season so far,” said the two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks centre.
“Tate not going over there in the end was a big one. But the All Blacks’ 10 minutes after the half-time, they got all the momentum with Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith. Off the back of it, they started making great inroads.
“So the World Cup picture, for the Wallabies supporters out there, there’s some good signs there tonight, but still not enough.”