With the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa completing last weekend, it was time to get back to our annual rugby competitions with the beginning of the 2021edition of the Rugby Championship. Opening the tournament was a match between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park, the 2ⁿᵈ of 3 Bledisloe Cup matches in 2021.
And it was last week’s losers Australia who were creating the early chances in Auckland, tough after making it to the All Blacks 22, Noah Lolesio saw his wide pass intercepted by Reiko Ioane and the winger, given a chance in his preferred position of outside centre, used his pace to take the ball the distance for the opening try. The Wallabies answered with their next attack though, drawing the defence in tight with a series of phases, before Lolesio chipped out wide to Andrew Kellaway, who stepped inside Damian McKenzie to go over in the corner, though a missed conversion from Lolesio kept the All Blacks ahead. This try appeared to spark the All Blacks, who grew into the game, and the Australian defence just succeeded in holding them out on a couple of occasions at the expense of just 1 penalty from Richie Mo’unga. Eventually the Wallabies defence earned a penalty of their own near halfway, but when Tom Banks chose to catch out the All Blacks with a tap and go, the support was lacking and the ball was quickly turned over out wide. The All Blacks took immediate advantage, spreading the ball out to Akira Ioane on the other wing who broke with support, dummying Kellaway to make more ground before finally feeding McKenzie, who offloaded to Brodie Retallick to finish the counter. As the game reached the half hour point, Lolesio cut the lead with a penalty, but his next kick proved costly. Attempting to clear his lines after the restart, the young fly half found his angle to the left touchline cut off by a charging Dalton Papali’i, so switched to kick to the further away right touchline. The ball came nowhere near touch and instead fell straight into the arms of Richie Mo’unga, who immediately countered deep into the Australian 2, and after a series of phases, Ardie Savea pushed over from close range. As the half came to an end, there was just time for the Wallabies to cut the lead with a try, with Rob Valetini drawing the defenders off the back of a 5m scrum, and feeding a looping Tate McDermott to go over beneath the posts, with Lolesio converting for a halftime score of 21-15.
After ending the first half on a high, the Wallabies were straight out the blocks after the break and soon found themselves with a temporary numerical advantage as Ardie Savea was sent to the sin bin. Looking to capitalise on the extra man in the pack, the team kicked to the corner, but Brandon Paenga-Amosa was unable to throw in straight and the chance as lost. And it didn’t take long for the All Blacks to make them pay for the missed chance, with Aaron Smith finding space down the blind side of a ruck to break away and feed Codie Taylor for a try, before Damian McKenzie kicked a monster penalty from inside his own half. If Australian hopes were hanging on by a thread, that thread was cut just moments later after Matt To’omua’s speculative wide pass was intercepted and ran back by Sevu Reece for yet another try. Codie Taylor went over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game on the hour and Will Jordan scored again just minutes later. However as the substitutions came on, the All Blacks appeared to drop off towards the end for the second week in a row, and Andrew Kellaway duly took advantage to go over in the corner for another try. With the clock in the red, both teams looked to end on a high, and when Kellaway fumbled, Will Jordan was able to collect the ball and hold up play to allow support to arrive before feeding David Havili, who went over to end the game with one last try, while Beauden Barrett converted for a final score of 57-22, the highest points total New Zealand had scored at home against Australia.
Own worst enemies
It’s harsh to say, but the Wallabies were their own worst enemies in this match. They had very few good chances to score and one of them as wasted by failing to correctly execute their own lineout correctly—an issue that isn’t new for Brandon Paenga-Amosa.
But even worse is when you look at the tries they conceded. Of the 8 tries New Zealand scored, 5 of them can be directly attributed to mistakes from the Wallabies, including all 3 of heir first half tries. Let’s start with the most obvious ones: the interceptions. While Kellaway scored 2 tries from the prior phases sucking in the defence, in the case of both interceptions, the Wallabies had not earned the right to go wide, which left defenders in position to exploit the wide passes, exactly like Richie Mo’unga’s try last weekend. Now for the remaining 3, let’s look at them in chronological order.
First up is Brodie Retallick’s try. Banks takes a risk by trying to catch the All Blacks out with a tap and go rather than a kick to touch, and credit to the Wallabies, they make ground to probably around the same area as where the kick would have gone out, however the break means that most of the Wallabies back line are involved in that first breakdown, so when Swinton knocks on and loses possession immediately after, the Australian defence is too narrow and—with Kellaway dropping back to defend the kick in behind—Rob Valentini is left exposed as the widest man in the defensive line with Paenga-Amosa inside him. It takes just a couple of wide passes to put Akira Ioane around the edge of the defence, with men in support allowing him to successfully dummy Kellaway and have men with him when he is eventually closed down.
Next we come to Savea’s try, and this is all about Lolesio’s kick giving Mo’unga the chance to counter and put the All Blacks on the front foot in the Australian 22. Mo’unga is in the pocket to buy time for a kick to the left hand touchline, but comes under pressure from Dalton Papali’i, who blitzes up alone to try charging down the clearance. Now in this moment, Lolesio has a couple of options. He could hold on tot he ball and try to step back inside to the left, where there is a small pod of players nearby including Michael Hooper, who could probably secure the breakdown with Papali’i on his own. The other options are to kick deep down the middle in an attempt to turn the All Blacks, or to kick for the right touchline, which is very far away so will result in very little ground gained. However, the New Zealand defence on that touchline has already dropped back expecting the kick, which actually leaves space for a kick pass to the right wing. Even if it doesn’t lead to a break, it gives them a chance to reset and build a safer platform from which to clear their lines. However, he instead appeared stuck in multiple minds, putting in a short central kick that also wasn’t high enough for his teammates to get into position to challenge for, allowing Mo’unga an easy catch with space to launch a counter, which put the All Blacks on the front foot deep in the Australian 22.
And finally, if we look at Havilli’s try, it all comes from Andrew Kellaway fumbling Lolesio’s pass in slippery conditions as they try to play for a meaningless try, with the ball being recovered by Will Jordan, who takes things from there. Cleverly noticing that Michael Hooper has already changed his running line to intercept a run to the posts, the Crusader instead runs a largely sideways route, that takes him towards the touchline but gives his support time to arrive. So when he is finally tackled, there are 3 defenders beyond him who have all overcommitted on trying to cover a run up the touchline, which leaves a wide open space for David Havili to run into after taking the offload.
To defeat the best teams in the world, you need to play close to perfect. This is too many mistakes at crucial moments, with the turnovers allowing the All Blacks to take advantage of a defence that isn’t set. If Australia want to have success in this year’s Rugby Championship, they need to be more accurate in possession and cut out these costly errors.
While this may be another big victory for the All Blacks, I can’t help feel that the questions surrounding Ian Foster’s role should remain. They are far from the team that just a few seasons ago was on a run to try and beat the record for consecutive Test victories. Arguably, they have a better all-round fly half now in Richie Mo’unga, but it feels like there are very few positions where there is a clear pecking order, the others being lock (Retallick and Whitelock) and scrum half (Aaron Smith). Beyond that, though, the constant chopping and changing of personnel—admittedly not helped right now by injuries to Sam Cane and a number of centres—is leaving the all Blacks in a position where they are lacking the chemistry of past teams and making a lot more errors.
The players have a natural skill and level of quality that is currently getting them through games, and to say that they hardly reached 4ᵗʰ gear in this match says a lot about the quality of opposition they were against, with Will Jordan’s try notable as being a result of players just attacking a gap created by a gold shirt bursting out to claim a loose ball that Aaron Smith beat them to, allowing the All Blacks to create a break that they converted with ease.
Against a top team though—for example South Africa, France or (on their day) England—it will be a much harder test. Will this team be able to put together the level of performance required? Right now, I feel that they have the players with the potential to do so, but I feel that the team is far from ready…