Tier 1 international rugby returned this weekend with the Bledisloe Cup. This was the first of 4 Bledisloe Cup fixtures we will see over the coming months, with another match next week and then 2 more fixtures during the Rugby Championship.
Match 1 took place in wet and windy Wellington but any thoughts that the home team would have an early advantage were soon quashed as Australia came out the gates strongly. However, the quality of the All Blacks soon shone through and after Damian McKenzie countered a kick, they took just a few phases to put Jordie Barrett over in the corner for the first try of Ian Foster’s tenure as head coach – though they were lucky that assistant referee Angus Gardner missed an obvious foot in touch from Reiko Ioane in the build-up. Barrett and James O’Connor struggled off the tee in heavy winds but each successfully added 3 points as the half went on. Australia had one more chance to attack in the half off a lineout, but Folau Fainga’a gave away possession at the back of the lineout and the All Blacks broke en masse. The ball came to Ioane who crossed the line, but replays showed that he had been too casual grounding the ball and had knocked on in the process and the score remained 8-3 going into the break.
New Zealand struck first after the break, playing pretty much the same move off the lineout that Australia had tried at the end of the first half and pulling it off to put Aaron Smith over in the corner – though it appeared that all the officials missed Joe Moody holding James Slipper in the maul as he tried to roll out and make a tackle. At 13-3, it felt like Australia had to score next o have any chance of winning in their first match under Dave Rennie, and that is exactly what they did with a great first phase play that saw O’Connor put Marika Koribete over in the corner. Then just after the hour mark, Damian McKenzie managed to get his hands in to turn over the ball on the flood as Matt Philip was brought down, but the ball was not secured and Nic White reacted quickest to put Filipo Daugunu over in the corner on his debut. With just 6 minutes left, a breakdown penalty allowed O’Connor to kick the Wallabies ahead for the first time in the match, but a pair of penalties allowed the All Blacks to reach the Australian 22 and then Rob Simmonds conceded a penalty at the maul, which Jordie Barrett kicked to level the scores.
And then in the 79ᵗʰ minute, the game went crazy. Australia won a penalty about 5 metres inside their own half (though the angle probably added a couple more metres to the post) and they called upon the big boot of replacement centre Reece Hodge. With the wind at his back, distance was no issue, but the accuracy was just off and the ball came crashing back off the post, only to be claimed by Australia in the New Zealand 22. However, after a number of phases looking for the try – and a clear penalty at the breakdown by Tupou Vaa’i missed by all officials – the kiwis turned over the ball and made their own way down to the Australia 22, only for a series of turnovers before O’Connor finally saw sense and kicked the ball out after 89 minutes to secure a 16-16 draw.
Ian Foster may not recognise the quality of Richie Mo’unga judging by how little he had him controlling the game, but Australia certainly did. So many times, the Crusaders first five-eighth would find himself under heavy pressure with a defender or 2 blitzing up in his face to give him limited time to get the ball away. Not only that but there were a number of times where he got smashed after the pass, though the hits were always soon enough after the pass that they could be considered legal.
If Mo’unga is allowed to get into a rhythm and dictate the game, he will rip a team apart and there were a few hints to this in the game, but the Wallabies did a great job of hurrying him, while also winning a number of collisions and slowing down the ball whenever possible to give their defence every possible chance to not just recover, but to go out and compete against a dangerous All Blacks lineup.
Between this and England’s victory in the World Cup, the way to beat the All Blacks is becoming clear.
This Australia team looked immediately better than many we saw in the latter days of Michael Cheika’s tenure. There was a very balanced look tot he team, with Hunter Paisami and the wingers bringing a physical edge to complement James O’Connor and Matt To’omua in the back line, while players like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Matt Philip and Taniela Tupou were constantly willing to take the ball on and make the hard yards. Even Nic White appeared to attack the fringes more than we would usually see him doing in the Premiership with Exeter!
While this was great to see, there were some clear hints that the team is still getting used to playing together, and the big one was the number of times that players would get isolated. A couple of times White found himself snagged after taking on the ball himself rather than making the pass, while a large proportion of Australia’s 14 penalties conceded came from their own attacking play, with the team either being penalised for holding on at the ruck or illegal entry to the breakdown. Had they been a bit better in this area, they could have ran away with the match, as they found themselves turned over on the All Blacks try line on a couple of occasions.
This isn’t a big surprise though. This is the first competitive game for this Wallabies side, which is heavily changed both in personnel and playing style. Give it a few games together and this is an area that should improve. I thought that the Wallabies may struggle in the Rugby Championship, but if this performance is anything to go by, they could be a dark horse for the competition.
Take a risk
Unlike the Wallabies, Ian Foster’s first All Blacks XV had a very familiar look to it. For a team as successful as New Zealand, the tried and tested players aren’t necessarily the wrong choice, but I think that Foster seriously missed a chance here.
Jordie Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu and Will Jordan were arguably 3 of the star players during Super Rugby Aotearoa, yet this match saw them wasted out of position, on the bench and not even in the 23 respectively. Caleb Clarke had limited time on the pitch but really seemed to bring something to the attack after his introduction, as did Sotutu.
With next weekend’s second Bledisloe Cup match the All Blacks’ last game before the Rugby Championship, I think that this is the perfect chance for Ian Foster to look at some of his options by starting some of the form players from the Rugby Championship. Bringing Sotutu in for Shannon Frizell (and moving Ardie Savea to 6) could add more variety to the back row, and while I would recommend keeping the Mo’unga, Goodhue, Ioane midfield, I would look at playing Jordie Barrett at 15 with Will Jordan and Caleb Clarke on the wings, which I feel would lead to a more balanced (if inexperienced) back 3 than what we saw in this game. Similarly, I would also look to take more of the control of the game from Aaron Smith and let Mo’unga play more of his natural game that we see with the Crusaders. Eve if this becomes a “Plan B”, it would still be a message to the other nations that if you find a way to stop one gameplan, the All Blacks will find another way to win.
Did ether team really want to win this game? You wouldn’t think so from the way the game played out after Reece Hodge struck the posts. Both Australia and New Zealand had multiple phases inside the opponent’s 22, and yet the 9 minutes of extra rugby passed with not a single phase where a team put a kicker in the pocket to go for the drop goal.
It was absolutely crazy, with plenty of breakdowns relatively in line with the posts to minimise the risk (even with the wind), while the Wallabies had 3 recognised kickers on the pitch in O’Connor, To’omua and Hodge, and the All Blacks had 2 in Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett. Any one of these players could have been the hero who won the Bledisloe, but nobody stepped up (or back, as the case may be) in the moment.
I understand that a team would much rather win with a last gasp try at the death as it’s much more exciting, but as Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto tells Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner in The Fast and the Furious, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning’s winning!” You’re not going to turn up your nose at a drop goal if that’s the Rugby World Cup final, so you better get your practice in now.
Honestly, both teams should look back at this match and consider it a loss due to the way they threw away this chance to win!