With the shorter Rugby Championship over for another season, we had the reverse of last weekend’s fixtures begin with Australia’s trip to Eden Park. Last week, the Wallabies dominated 14-man New Zealand, but the All Blacks had made some changes for this match and looked much more dangerous from the off, taking an early lead through the boot of Richie Mo’unga. While Australia worked their way into the game, an errant display off the tee from Christian Leali’ifano kept them scoreless, while New Zealand scored 2 quick tries through Mo’unga and Aaron Smith for a 17-0 halftime lead. It was more of the same after the break as New Zealand kept Australia scoreless while scoring a further 3 tries themselves on the way to a 36-0 victory.
Back when South Africa beat New Zealand in the 2018 Rugby Championship, I suggested that the All Blacks needed to become more pragmatic and be willing to kick the points. In this match, we saw a different side of the team, and they looked so much better for it. While they were willing to put points on the board by kicking penalties rather than going for the corner, Richie Mo’unga – who looked more comfortable at 10 this week – was happy to put the ball in behind the Wallabies defensive line, with some of his kicks to the corner causing Australia real problems. They even almost got a try off one of these kicks as it held up just metres from the line and forced Reece Hodge to play the ball under pressure. The kicking game did not give the Wallabies a chance to counter and did a great job of keeping the momentum with the men in black.
This is not to say that the All Blacks didn’t use their back line and still attack in the usual way. They did plenty of that too – to great effect – but the important thing was that between the forwards making hard yards (most notably Ardie Savea), the backs cutting through the defence and a strong kicking game, the All Blacks had the right balance that suddenly makes them look much more dangerous again with the World Cup just around the corner.
Last week, Australia were on fire, they looked like they were fighting for their lives and looked dominant. This week, it was not an awful performance, but the errors crept back in. Too many balls went to floor, most notably when an Australia attack was ended by a Reece Hodge drop that was picked up by Mo’unga and ran back for the opening try. While the pass dropped low to make it a difficult catch, Hodge was too flat and being just a couple of steps further back would have allowed him to take the ball and continue the attack, potentially changing the shape of the game. If Australia can cut out the errors and do the basics right, they look a very dangerous team.
More than that though, they also need to cut out the stupid penalties. Jaco Peyper was very kind to them today as he twice allowed them to get away with taking out New Zealand players well beyond the ruck, while he also gave just a scrum after Izack Rodda knocked on and a teammate picked the ball up from a clearly offside position. Despite this, they still gave away 9 penalties… too many for a side that wants to win the big matches. The Wallabies really need to sort out their discipline if they want to make it past the World Cup quarterfinals.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
Usually I try to stick to 2 players from each team in this section, but today I felt that I needed to take a moment to mention 4 All Blacks. Whether they were dropped or just rested as Steve Hansen looks at his options, Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Reiko Ioane will have been worried about their starting spots watching the great performances of Nepo Laulala, Sevu Reece and George Bridge. In the absence of Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu put in a strong performance – including muscling Kurtley Beale back over the All Blacks try line in the first half – and surely confirmed his spot as the fourth choice lock – assuming Retallick is fit. Moving over to the Wallabies, Tolu Latu had another strong performance that included a very smart kick downfield and I think he may be securing the starting hooking spot, while Taniela Tupou did a good job of helping solidify the scrum following Allan Alaalatoa’s injury.
Moving onto the players who will be a little more nervous, Ben Franks may be a risk of missing the cut following the performances of Laulala and replacement Angus Ta’avao, while Jack Maddocks looks like he has fallen behind Adam Ashley-Cooper in the pecking order. Of those who were actually involved in the match, Richie Mo’unga ha a strong game but will be hoping a shoulder injury is not too serious, while Kurtley Beale may find his spot in the staring XV at risk after a game where he struggled under the high ball, though I imagine he will still be in the squad due to his experience and versatility.
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