Probably the closest Rugby Championship in a long time reached it’s final week, and it all started aut Eden park, with New Zealand facing Australia. Last week’s controversial victory saw New Zealand enter the weekend at the top of the table courtesy of a 13-point advantage over South Africa in overall points differential, while Australia knew that a bonus point that denied the All Blacks any bonus points would see them go top of the table and hoping Argentina pulled off a shock in South Africa.
But Australia’s job became so much harder just 2 minutes in as Jed Holloway’s cleanout of Dalton Papali’i saw him take the flanker beyond the horizontal, leading to an early yellow card. And the All Blacks were immediately taking advantage of the extra man, with Beauden Barrett—starting at fullback—breaking down the left wing and chipping on, with the pressure forcing Marika Koroibete to carry the ball out over his own dead ball line for an All Blacks 5m scrum, but the Wallabies defended manfully so close to their line and eventually won the turnover penalty after 5 minutes of pressure, allowing them to clear their lines and get back to 15 men. As the game remained a tight, error-strewn affair, the All Blacks finally opened the scoring with a Richie Mo’unga penalty, while the Wallabies were dealt a blow, losing Lalakai Foketi to injury, with Jordan Petaia coming on. And things soon got worse for the men in gold as Will Jordan used his pace to find some space with an arcing run to get outside Petaia and go over for the opening try. The All Blacks were suddenly taking over the game, and a break from Rieko Ioane just a minute later led to an 8ᵗʰ penalty in 25 minutes, though despite the Wallabies being on a team warning, skipper James Slipper somehow avoided a yellow card. However the All Blacks got the drive on from the resulting lineout, and when it went to ground, Andrew Brace awarded a penalty try and sent hooker Dave Porecki to the bin. 1 points down and with a man in the bin, the Wallabies needed something, and a clever move at the front of the lineout released Pete Samu (throwing in due to Porecki’s absence) up to the All Blacks try line, and when the ball came back to the blind side, Koroibete dropped over in the corner, only to find that his foot was in touch. But the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and went for the line again, which saw Harry Wilson stopped just short and the ball held up a phase later. The australian pressure continued, but in their quest for tries not penalties they found themselves turning down kicks at goal but unable to get across the whitewash, and the kicking of Mo’unga and the Barrett brothers continued to find space deep in the backfield to push the visitors back and put the under pressure, so the teams reached the break with the All Blacks leading 17-0.
The Wallabies ay have been back to 15 as the second half kicked off, but they were under immediate pressure, and Sam Whitelock forced his way over the line after just 2 and a half minutes, and despite Angus Bell’s best efforts to dislodge the ball on the way to ground, TMO Ben Whitehouse adjudged that Whitelock had managed to keep control and the try was given. Mo’unga kicked the conversion and a penalty just minutes later to open up a 27-0 lead after just 47 minutes, and this lead was stretched further on 53 minutes as a scrum penalty allowed the All Blacks a lineout 5m from the line, and Codie Taylor was given the easy job of dropping over the line after a strong driving maul. The Walabies finally got on the scoresheet as the hour approached, Mo’unga’s kick partially charged down to Pete Samu, who advanced down the wing, and as he tried to find Folau Fainga’a on his inside, his pass was knocked towards the try line by the despairing hand of Will Jordan, allowing the Wallabies hooker to dive on the loose ball and let his momentum take him over the line. However a series of unforced handling errors from the Wallabies put them under pressure deep in their own 22, and when New Zealand won a penalty, they went to the corner and pushed over replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho for their 5ᵗʰ try of the night, while only the efforts of Koroibete covering back denied the All Blacks a 6ᵗʰ just moments later as Akira Ioane chased his own grubber kick down the wing. The result may have been beyond doubt with 10 minutes remaining, but that was no excuse for TMO Ben Whitehouse choosing to ignore what should have been a red card for Sevu Reece for a tackle on Reece Hodge that led to a head clash, and it was said All Blacks wing who forced a turnover on his own line from Australia’s next attack, with the All Blacks then countering and adding a further 3 points from the boot of Mo’unga. Australia had one last chance to grab a consolation try at the death as they kicked a penalty to the corner, and after 6 phases of pressure, Nic White’s flat miss-pass sent Petaia over beneath the posts as the defence jammed in on Pone Fa’amausili, and Reece Hodge added the conversion for a final score of 40-14.
All that was left for the All Blacks was to wait for South Africa’s match later, with the Springboks now needing a bonus point victory by a margin of at least 40 points in order to deny New Zealand the title.
While last week was costly for the All Blacks with the loss of both Quinn Tupaea—who will be out long-term—and David Havili, it may have been a blessing in disguise. While some may have thought this would be the chance for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to get a start, Ian Foster instead chose to move fullback Jordie Barrett into the 12 shirt, with brother Beauden coming into the team at fullback.
Beauden Barrett is a fantastic player, but not as good a fly half as Mo’unga, and with Jordie Barrett the incumbent at 15 and covering long-range goal-kicking duties, Beauden’s talents were being left to just late cameos.
However as I have covered multiple times before, Jordie is (in the kindest of ways) a freak of nature, as he has the handling, passing and kicking skills to cover playmaking positions, he also has the size and power to carry hard. Havili has frequently been used in the 12 position outside Mou’unga, where he can use his own playmaking and kicking abilities, so Jordie Barrett provides a similar option at this position, but then also added an extra dynamic in the way that he could just run hard into contact himself, while we know that Beauden is more than capable of excelling at 15, allowing him to work his magic while Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett run the game.
With the Autumn Nations Cup coming up, don’t be shocked to see more of Jordie Barrett in this position as New Zealand look to climb back up the rankings.
Their own worst enemy
Australia are their own worst enemy at the moment. They will defend like dogs and hold out when conventional wisdom would suggest they should break, while in attack they can be so incredibly dangerous—especially with this week’s dynamic back row of Rob Valentini, Pete Samu and Harry Wilson—and yet they then ruin everything by giving away a million penalties a game!
OK, so a million may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not far off. They gave away 8 penalties before they even reached the half hour mark; a top team should be hoping to only just hit double figures in an entire game. And once again they have spent 20 minutes of the match with players off the pitch in the bin, their 7ᵗʰ and 8ᵗʰ yellow cards of the tournament. When you are playing that much rugby a man down, you’re making it all-but impossible to win, while it also can’t help but be in an official’s mind going into a game that this is a team that frequently offends, meaning they will be looking for those offences.
But its so much more than that. Just take it back to a base level. Penalties stop your attacks (Holloway’s overzealous cleanout of Papali’i ended a promising early attack). It gifts your opponent possession, and leaves you having to work harder defending than you would in attack. And it gifts your opponent territory, allowing them to clear their own lines if in trouble, or kick deep into your half if you are in attack.
When you consider how many players Australia are missing at the moment through injury, the fact that they can be so competitive is impressive. However until the Wallabies can improve their discipline, they will struggle to get results consistently going their way.