The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.
With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.
This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.
I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .
Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.
RWC2019 Winners and Losers
Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.
Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.
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