Round 5 of the 2022 Rugby Championship kicked off in slightly unusual circumstances on a Thursday in Melbourne with Australia facing off against New Zealand for the first Bledisloe Cup match of the year. The All Blacks came in topping the table after a big victory over Argentina, and took advantage of the Wallabies’ failure to win the kickoff to establish early dominance in the 22, resulting in a driving maul pushing Samisoni Taukei’aho over for the opening try after 3 minutes. Richie Mo’unga, getting a run of games in the starting lineup, kicked the touchline conversion and added a penalty for a breakdown infringement after 10 minutes as ill discipline and handling errors from Australia gifted the All Blacks possession. Australia finally earned some possession and soon kicked a penalty of their own through Bernard Foley, who was appearing for the first time in 3 years, while their next possession in the All Blacks 22 saw them create an overlap to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner, only for the efforts of Rieko Ioane and Mo’unga to hold the ball up. It was just a temporary delay, though, as Rob Valentini crashed over from short range just minutes later while Dalton Papali’i—on as a replacement for Sam Cane who had suffered a head injury—was sent to the bin for an offence in the build-up. The try and man advantage appeared to spur on the Wallabies, however a series of 15 phases deep in New Zealand territory was ended by a timely jackal from Quinn Tupaea—on early after David Havili suffered a head clash in a friendly fire incident—while the Wallabies also had to bring on Darcy Swain for Rob Leota, who had been attempting to run off an early knock. And the All Blacks immediately made Australia pay for the missed opportunity, with Caleb Clarke breaking from his own 22 into the Australian red one and forcing a cynical penalty from Tom Wright, who was sent to the bin, while Swain joined him just seconds after his introduction for a dangerous cleanout on Tupaea (who left the field with a knee injury), while Papali’i returned to the field to change a 15v14 into a 13v15 situation with 5 minutes left of the first half, which the All Blacks took immediate advantage of to drive Taukei’aho over, only for Jake Gordon to force the ball loose as the hooker tried to ground it, and the home team held on to half time with the scores level at 10-10.
The Wallabies replaced injured captain James Slipper at half time with Scott Sio coming on, but the All Blacks were ahead before the prop had a chance to get involved in the game, with a clever kick downfield and determined chase taking advantage of the extra space in the Australian backfield, while Taukei’aho was not to be denied this time when he got the ball close to the line, while a poor decision to kick from Hoskins Sotutu with plenty of men in support was the only thing that denied the All Blacks scoring on a break from their own 22 with their very next possession. A breakdown penalty won by Lalakai Foketi allowed Foley to cut the lead to 4 as the Wallabies got back to 15 men, but that didn’t last long as Jake Gordon was soon given a yellow card for collapsing a maul. WIth a man advantage and a back line featuring Mo’unga and 2 Barretts, maul was stopped immediately, Mo’unga found a gap outside Foley and held onto the ball through a double tackle as he went to ground to score next to the posts. Just minutes later, Will Jordan beat everyone to a Beauden Barrett chip over the defensive line and swerved around the despairing tackles of the remaining defenders to score under the posts, Mo’unga’s conversion stretching the lead to 13-31. The All Blacks were looking comfortable, until Foley got his arms through a tackle and offloaded to send Kellaway over for a try as they prepared to return to 15 men, which flipped the momentum in favour of the hosts, who struck again with 13 minutes remaining as Foley’ wide pass beat the New Zealand defence and send Kellaway over again, the conversion from Foley bringing the deficit down to just 4 points. Mo’unga kicked a penalty to fight back against the flood of points, but the Wallabies had their tails up, and Pete Samu combined with Marika Koroibete to put the back row over in the corner, while Foley’s conversion drew the scores level with 6 minutes remaining. Rob Valentini won a penalty that Nic White kicked from just inside the All Black half for the unlikeliest of late leads, and when their defence stopped the All Blacks maul 5m from the line and won a penalty with just over a minute remaining, it looked like a momentous comeback victory was on the cards. However referee Mathieu Raynal decided that he had not played a big enough part in the match to this point, and having allowed time wasting from both teams throughout, chose this moment to decide that enough was enough and gave a New Zealand 5m scrum after adjudging that Foley took too long to take his kick to touch, and having been gifted one last chance, Will Jordan sent Jordie Barrett over in the corner for a controversial 37-39 victory.
Dropping like flies
Just one year out from the World Cup, Dave Rennie must be getting very nervous at the number of injuries his squad is picking up. Through both this tournament and the preceding Test series against England, they have found themselves losing a couple of players each game, and rarely just with a knock that would see them back for the next match.
While it does have some benefits by allowing Dave Rennie a chance to test some of his fringe players against strong opposition—just look at Foley’s first cap since the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Pone Fa’aumausili making his debut—the constant chopping and changing of personnel is stopping the team from getting any consistency in selection and creation of units. And as good as all these players are, they need to be playing together regularly to build up the chemistry and trust between each other—you just have to look at the former New Zealand back row of Kaino, McCaw and Read or centre pair of Nonu and Smith to see just how chemistry can take players from very good to great.
But what is causing so many injuries? Are they working to hard in training, leaving muscles at risk? Or are they just going through a string of really bad luck, as you sa with injuries to players like Banks and Perese? Whatever the case, with limited matches remaining between now and the Rugby World Cup, Dave Rennie needs to hope the injuries end soon so that his ideal 23 can get used to working together. In a pool that contains Fiji, Wales and a Georgian team that should never be written off, that chemistry and familiarity could be the difference between topping the pool and an early exit.
While it may be a win for the All Blacks, it’s a very odd one to look back on. While they had moments of genuine quality, many of these came when they were playing with a numerical advantage, while the playmaking trio of Mo’unga and the Barretts was enforced through injury rather than a brilliant tactical decision from Foster. But more telling was just how many breaks or half-breaks came to disappointing ends due to either handling errors or wrong decisions, most notably when Hoskins Sotutu chose to kick with teammates supporting on either side.
But equally worrying is just how easy Australia found it to hit back after periods of All Black dominance. We’re not used to seeing New Zealand take their boot off their opponent’s neck once they get on top, and you would usually expect that a couple of quick tries to build up a 13-31 lead just after the hour would be a spot from which New Zealand would go on to win comfortably rather that the prompt for a fightback from an Australian lineup who are not used to playing together. If recent matches are anything to go by, New Zealand will be better in round 6 after a match of sizing up their opponents. But if they do win he final fixture, then a 3-game winning streak will be hiding plenty of deficiencies still very present within this team.