Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

The Bledisloe Cup may already have been decided last week, but the Rugby Championship (or Tri Nations, as it is being called this year with South Africa absent) was still on the line as New Zealand faced Australia at Suncorp Stadium.

Both teams made a number of changes, but it was the Wallabies who got the better start as they collected Reece Hodge’s chip into the All Black 22 to set up Tom Wright for a try just 3 minutes into his Test debut. The All Blacks soon hit back, going through the phases to create space for Reiko Ioane to cross out wide. Reece Hodge kicked a penalty to put Australia ahead, and when Ofa Tu’ungafasi was shown a red card for a high tackle on Tom Wright, it looked like the game was swinging in their favour. However, New Zealand were next to score through a Jordie Barrett penalty, before Lachlan Swinton’s debut came to a premature end 35 minutes in with a red card for a high shot of his own. Marika Koroibete followed Swinton off the pitch in the final minute of the first half (though just for 10 minutes), but the Wallabies managed to hold n for a halftime score of 8-8.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Wallabies opened up the scoring in the second half with another Hodge penalty, and Koroibete returned to the field just in time to deny Sevu Reece in the corner, though it came at the expense of a 5m lineout, which the All Blacks drove over for Codie Taylor to score, Barrett hitting the conversion. Hodge kept the scores close with another penalty, before New Zealand saw Scott Barrett sent to the bin for cynically playing the ball on the floor. The Wallabies took advantage of the extra man, kicking the penalty for 3 points before Taniela Tupou crashed over from close range with just 5 minutes left, Hodge kicking the conversion for a 24-15 lead. With the game back to 14v14 for the final minutes, Tupou Vaa’i crashed over and Jordie Barrett added the conversion to bring it back within 2 points, but some dogged defence from Marika Koroibete forced a knock-on after the restart and the Wallabies were able to see out the final minute for a 24-22 victory.

On the up

With a new head coach in Dave Rennie, the Wallabies squad is clearly at the start of a post-World Cup rebuild, with a number of young inexperienced players being brought in and given the chance in these early matches. While the results haven’t always been there over these first 4 games, there have been positive performances on the whole. This was probably the most impressive performance to date, given that they were missing 3 key players in James O’Connor, Matt To’omua and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Playing Reece Hodge at fly half gave much more control and composure, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move out to centre to provide some experienced support for Lolesio at 10 against Argentina. Hunter Paisami is quickly becoming the reliable rock in midfield, while Wright’s impressive debut shows that the Wallabies have at least 3 great options on the wing with him, Koroibete and Filipo Daugunu.

Meanwhile in the pack, Matt Philip looks like he has been playing international rugby for years, Harry Wilson continues to impress and Lachlan Swinton was doing a great job as an enforcer until his red card. And then let’s not forget in the front row, where Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou are one of the best 1-2-punches at tighthead in international rugby!

If Australia can continue to build on these early performances, they will be a dangerous opponent in the next couple of years.

Their own worst enemy

As great as Australia were in this game, the All Blacks were their own worst enemy and need to take a long hard look at their discipline during the week. New Zealand conceded 12 penalties in this game and spent almost 75% of the game without a full complement on the pitch.

Now, Tu’ungafasi’s red card was a little unfortunate as it clearly wasn’t a deliberate attempt to cause injury, however it was just another example of players not getting low enough and then driving their body up for the big hit, and with the contact coming directly to the head/neck area, Nic Berry had no choice but to give the red card.

If Tu’ungafasi’s was unfortunate, Scott Barrett’s yellow was nothing short of moronic, as he was clearly on the floor having been part of the breakdown and somehow inexplicably thought he could get away with slapping the ball out of Nic White’s hand. You could maybe get away with it in amateur rugby, but a professional, international tournament with cameras everywhere? Not a chance! Sevu Reece also gave away some stupid, costly penalties as well and in my opinion had a poor game with his place on the line.

Poor discipline is often down to poor coaching, and with Ian Foster’s first 4 matches all coming against a rebuilding Australia but including a draw at home and a loss, he needs to get things sorted out fast, or the success of Scott Robertson with the Crusaders will keep him on a very short leash.

Debut disappointment

As an All Black, you never want to make your Test debut in a (usually rare) loss, but for 2 players, today’s debuts were even more disappointing.

Akira Ioane is a highly talented back row – so much so that I picked him in my Uncapped XV back in early 2018. Though he went through a patch of bad form, he has got back to his best and earned this start, performing well until he was pulled to make way for Tyrel Lomax following Tu’ungafasi’s red card.

Meanwhile, Will Jordan was forced to wait until the 65ᵗʰ minute of this match to finally make his debut, despite being one of the best players in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Unfortunately, he found himself leaving the field just 5 minutes later wit an injury, before he even got to touch the ball!

Hopefully Jordan’s injury is nothing serious and he can look to start against Argentina next week, as I feel that the All Blacks will look to use their wider squad a little more. Hopefully these upcoming Tests against the Pumas will see players like Jordan, Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Asafo Aumua given the chance to earn their spot on the international stage.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

New Zealand and Australia met for the 3ʳᵈ time in 4 weeks, but this time at ANZ Stadium in Sydney to kick off the 2020 edition of the Rugby Championship. Usually contested by Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa, the South African’s late return to rugby as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the World Champions pulled out of this year’s tournament.

The Wallabies couldn’t have got off to a much worse start, as wing Filipo Daugunu was sent to the in within a couple of minutes for tackling Caleb Clarke in the air. The All Blacks positioned themselves in the Australian 22 and when the defenders rushed to cover the open side, the New Zealand forwards stayed on the blind side to create a massive overlap, from which Karl Tu’inukuafe crashed over for his first Test try, converted by Richie Mo’unga. Jordie Barrett soon found himself joining Daugunu in the bin for leading with a forearm, but the All Backs remained in control and thought they had extended the lead when Dane Coles dotted down a cross-kick from Mo’unga, only for replays to show that he did not have sufficient control. Caleb Clarke crossed the line a few minutes later but was denied by a wonderful covering tackle by Marika Koribete, but with both teams back to 15, Mo’unga ran a reverse off Aaron Smith and beat Brandon Paenga-Amosa for pace to go over in the corner. As the half hour mark approached, Mo’unga reacted quickest to a chip over the defensive line by Beauden Barrett and outran the cover to score under the posts and convert, before a catch and drive lineout saw Dane Coles score from 5 metres out, Mo’unga converting for a 0-26 halftime lead.

The second half started much better for the Wallabies, as Jordan Petaia broke through the All Blacks defence just over a minute after the restart and after he was finally brought down 10 metres short of the line, Noah Lolesio took advantage of a scrambling defence to crash through a gap and score on his debut. With the second half proving a much tighter affair, Mo’unga added 3 points from the tee on the hour mark, before Hoskins Sotutu broke off a 5m scrum to the blind side and feed replacement wing Reiko Ioane to go over in the corner, with Mo’unga again converting. The win was secured by this point but Jordie Barrett put the cherry on top, running a beautiful out to in line off Mo’unga to break through on halfway and go over next to the posts to give Mo’unga an easy conversion. The Wallabies kept fighting to the end and almost had a consolation try at the death through Koroibete, only for Jordie Barrett to make a try-saving tackle and preserve the 5-43 scoreline – a record margin of victory in the fixture. This 2-0 scoreline after 3 matches meant that the All Blacks secured the Bledisloe Cup for the 18ᵗʰ consecutive year with next week’s 4ᵗʰ Test to spare.

Youthful inexperience

Australia were dealt a massive blow ahead of this fixture, with both Matt To’omua and James O’Connor ruled out through injury. This led to Dave Rennie picking an incredibly inexperienced midfield of flyhalf Noah Lolesio (20 years old, uncapped) and centres Irae Simone (25, uncapped) and Jordan Petaia (20, 4 caps). While a talented trio of players who I think all have great international careers ahead of them, playing as a midfield trio against the All Blacks seemed a little too soon.

Unfortunately, their inexperience on the international stage showed, especially in the first half, with too much possession kicked away, especially while Jordie Barrett was in the bin, during which time all 3 of these players kicked the ball away aimlessly when in the New Zealand half, gifting possession back to the All Blacks when they should have been going through the phases to utilise their numerical advantage.

Personally, I think that Dave Rennie would have done better starting Reece Hodge in this match in place of Lolesio. While the Brumbie is arguably the more talented fly half, Hodge would have added that top-level experience in a crucial position, while his howitzer of a right boot could have come in handy in wet conditions.

Suffice to say, this will have been a great learning experience for the youngsters, Rennie just needs to hope that they can quickly get over a record defeat.

Mo’unga magic

I’ve been critical of the way that Richie Mo’unga is used in the All Blacks set-up, but this match gave a tease of just how great a player he is.

Often in internationals, he is more or a game manager, but in this match – like when he plays for the Crusaders – he got the chance to really show off his skills. Though small in stature, he is deceptively strong, but he also has the pace and footwork to be a threat in space, as he showed with both of his tries in this match, beating Paenga-Amaso to the outside as he ran a reverse for his first try in the corner, while slightly angling his run to avoid Koroibete and Lolesio for his second. He almost had a hat trick too, reacting quickest to Daugunu dropping a high ball, only for him to lose his footing when clean through – though even then he had the presence of mind to look for the offload to Jack Goodhue.

I’m still not fully sure of the Mo’unga/Barrett/Barrett 10/15/14 combination as I don’t think it gets the best out of Mo’unga or Jordie Barrett, but it certainly looked better in this game.

Playing smart

When you’re playing against the All Blacks, you need to be smart with your possession and not give it away cheaply. Unfortunately, that was the exact opposite of what the Wallabies did for much of this match.

As well as aimless kicks, the team were frequently looking for the offload, despite the slippery conditions, and this unsurprisingly led to a high number of turnovers. I imagine that much of it came from youthful exuberance and wanting to make something happen there and then, but at this level of the game, you need to be more disciplined.

If you give the All Blacks possession, they will make you pay, but if you can keep hold of the ball and keep going through the phases, playing smart rugby, you have the chance to tire them and create chances.

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2020 Bledisloe Cup #2: New Zealand v Australia

2020 Bledisloe Cup #2: New Zealand v Australia

With the Rugby Championship kicking off in just 2 weeks, New Zealand hosted Australia at Eden Park for the second of four Bledisloe Cup matches in 2020. With last week’s draw meaning that 2 victories will be enough to win the series, both teams were up for a physical encounter in much more favourable conditions for running rugby.

After an open start, Richie Mo’unga opened the scoring from the tee. Some impressive counterattacking from Mo’unga and Dane Coles gave Beauden Barrett a platform to put a grubber in behind and pressure from Jordie Barrett caused Marika Koroibete to carry it over his own line for a 5m scrum to New Zealand. Jack Goodhue took the ball on a crash course to the try line on the first phase and Aaron Smith slipped under the challenge of Ned Hanigan to score the try, Mo’unga kicking the conversion. Australia looked to hit back and when Ned Hanigan slipped through Joe Moody’s attempted tackle to break deep into the All Blacks 22, a pass out to Taniela Tupou drew in the wide defenders and quick ball saw the overlap exploited for Koroibete to cross in the corner, James O’Connor making it 10-7 at the break with the conversion.

New Zealand were out of the blocks quicker after the break and extended their lead in just over 2 minutes, after Caleb Clarke broke into the 22 and a series of phases gave Mo’unga and Jack Goodhue the platform to send Jordie Barrett over in the corner, Mo’unga missing the touchline conversion. A loose kick from O’Connor and questionable chase from his teammates saw Clarke rampage through the defence, eventually being stopped in the 22, but the effort had left a massive overlap to the left and Ardie Savea rode Filipo Daugunu’s tackle to score. Australia needed to hit back and it looked like they had as Koroibete ran through Mo’unga to cross in the corner, only for the fly half to hang on and roll with the contact to hold the ball up. The chance wasn’t gone for the Wallabies, though, as they had a penalty advantage and chose to go for the 5m catch and drive lineout. Brandon Paenga-Amosa managed to dot the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO saw the try disallowed for a double movement, and the All Blacks were able to clear their lines from the resultant penalty. This was a big hit to the Wallabies, and momentum completely shifted away from them just minutes later as Mo’unga put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap. The lock offloaded to Sam Cane and the captain cut inside the covering defender to score under the posts, with Mo’unga converting to make a 27-7 scoreline that would last to the final whistle.

From Blue to Black

Caleb Clarke may have only been making his first start after coming on for his debut last week, but his performance rightly deserved the standing ovation he received from the crowd when he was replaced and it’s easy to imagine that the former 7s star may have already secured the 11 jersey.

For those who hadn’t seen him playing for the Blues during Super Rugby Aotearoa, the son of Eroni Clarke (All Black #919, 24 caps) showed in his late cameo last week that he was a strong carrier on the wing. This week, with conditions much more favourable to running rugby, the 21-year old ran rampant, finishing with vastly more metres than anyone else on the pitch and leaving defenders in his wake. Not only is he incredibly strong and difficult to put down, but he is an elusive runner and you need to ensure as a defender that you go low and hang on for dear life to make sure that he can’t right himself mid-fall and carry on, as he did a few times in this match.

He will certainly have harder tests defensively as Filipo Daugunu had a quiet game, but such is his game-changing talent, it is hard to imagine him being left out of the side if fit. It looks like All Black #1187 is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Spoiling game

The Wallabies’ new lock pairing of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip has really impressed me over these last 2 matches. While they were less of a feature in the loose this week, Philip especially stood out for me at the lineout.

Neither Codie Taylor nor Dane Coles had the best of times throwing at the lineouts during Super Rugby Aotearoa and with Tuipulotu and Tupou Vaa’i at lock, they had unfamiliar targets to throw at. Already this is going to make the lineouts more tricky than usual, but Philip did a great job of not just trying to get up and compete against the All Blacks, but also disrupt them before the throw by making as much noise as he can in order to put off the All Blacks and potentially make them mishear the call.

I was surprised last week to see Rob Simmons only on the bench, but right now I agree with Dave Rennie’s decision and think that Salakaia-Loto and Philip are the top pairing the Wallabies can field.

Costly injuries

With the Rugby Championship (and the third Bledisloe Cup match) just 2 weeks away, both teams saw a couple of influential players go down injured in this game.

Matt To’omua went off just before half time after struggling for a few minutes with an injury that appeared to come about as he kicked a clearance – possibly a groin/hip flexor. The Rebels playmaker is a key part of this Wallabies backline, controlling the game along with James O’Connor while also leading the Wallabies defensive effort. It was no surprise to see the All Blacks piling on most of their points after he had been replaced.

Meanwhile for the All Blacks, Sam Whitelock was missing from this match due to concussion and there were 2 more head injuries for them in this game, with Joe Moody being knocked out after getting his head on the wrong place trying to tackle Ned Hanigan in the build-up to Koroibete’s try, while debutant Peter Umaga-Jensen failed a late Head Injury Assessment. You would hope that 2 weeks would be sufficient for all 3 to make a recovery, but head injuries are tricky things to judge and you need to be extra careful with them. What makes the potential loss of Umaga-Jensen (himself a replacement in the squad for the injured Braydon Ennor) more of a worry is that last weekend’s 13 Reiko Ioane missed this match through injury. That leaves very few options behind Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue, though I would not be against seeing Jordie Barrett cover the centre position – he is wasted on the wing – to create space on the right wing for Will Jordan, who would himself be getting a chance due to a season-ending injury for George Bridge.

Both teams will certainly be hoping that they can get as many of their squad back to full fitness as possible ahead of the next Bledisloe Cup match, as victory for the All Blacks would secure the title for 2020.

2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

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.

Shut down

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.

Isolated

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.

Wasted opportunity

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!

Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

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.

 

New Zealand

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.

Australia

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 LaulalaSevu 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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Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

Eyes On: Bledisloe III 2018

New Zealand and Australia prepared to kick off their Autumn tours to the Northern Hemisphere this weekend with their third and final meeting of the year in Yokohama. After a tight first half that saw the All Blacks lead by 7 points, the Australian defence was unable to keep up in the second half as New Zealand scored 5 tries in total to win 20-37 and take the Bledisloe Cup in a 3-0 whitewash this year.

Options in the backs

I have a couple of times recently been critical of the Williams/Crotty centre partnership as I do not feel the balance is right in midfield when they are together. While I do still think this, I think that Steve Hansen may have a solution. Ben Smith is in my opinion still the best fullback New Zealand have, but moving him to the wing and playing Damian McKenzie at 15 (where I rate him so much higher than at 10) meant that there was still another playmaking option beyond Beauden Barrett. Personally, I think there are better options than Smith on the wing but he is too good a player to leave out, so I imagine whether he plays at 14 or 15 will often depend on who is selected at centre.

Beyond that, it’s great to see TJ Perenara getting a start as he so often has to play second fiddle to Aaron Smith but would walk into pretty much any other international team, but I still feel that Richie Mo’unga needs to be given more gametime (he did not come on until 12 minutes remained) and especially as the starting 10. I can’t imagine him starting against England and Ireland but I will be shocked if he doesn’t start against Japan and Italy.

The backup

Very similar to Mo’unga, I really think Nick Phipps needs to get the starts at scrum half for Australia this summer. Will Genia is a talented player but did not have a good game in Yokohama. He was too quick to shift away from Kieran Read as he came off a scrum and – combined with Ned Hanigan being slow to break off the scrum – this made it easy for Read to go over for a try, while he also didn’t cover the blind side well enough from another scrum, allowing Reiko Ioane to break away and put Barrett over for another try. There was also another moment when I found myself yelling at the television as Australia took the ball into contact and gave away a penalty at the breakdown because he didn’t clean out and instead waited in position for a ball that was never coming back. It may be time to look at moving on from him.

Regardless of whether his starting place should be under threat or not, Phipps needs to get more game time as a starter in case something happens to Genia during the World Cup. Australia have a great set of players and if they can get their act together then they have the potential to challenge for the victory, but if they then have to turn to a 9 who is used to only playing about 10 minutes at the end of games, they are bound to struggle. The problem for Phipps now will be that recent results have been so poor for Australia, Cheika needs a successful tour, so I expect to see him stick with Genia for the matches against Wales and England.

What’s the plan?

Anyone who read my series throughout the Rugby Championship will know that I was not impressed with the way Michael Cheika was setting up his backline. This match was no exception. Israel Folau was wasted at 13 and his few decent breaks came from when he was back retrieving kicks. Even odder was the way that at every set piece, the Wallabies seemed to be swapping their position in the back line. While that could be done to great effect to confuse the defence, the only ones who looked confused were in green and gold! Folau’s best attribute is arguably his ability to contest the high ball – something wasted in the centre. I was not surprised to see the back line begin to look more organised once Samu Kerevi came on in the centre and Folau was moved to the wing. Suddenly players were in their correct positions and they had a hard, physical runner in the midfield. I’ll be interested to see what Michael Cheika does in the next few matches.

World Cup warm-up

While an important match in itself, the hosting of this match at Nissan Stadium – set to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final – was also meant to be a warm-up and test ahead of the tournament. To say I was not encouraged is a bit of an understatement.

Granted Australia have been in poor form, but to only have an attendance of 46,143 in a stadium with a capacity of over 72,000 seems hugely disappointing. Being a football stadium, the pitch also did not fill me with hope as it started cutting up almost immediately. While it can maybe withstand the odd game of rugby, will it be able to hold up to matches on 21st & 22nd September, 12th & 13th October, 26th & 27th October and then still be in a good enough condition to make the final on 2nd November the spectacle it should be? I have my doubts.

But perhaps worst of all in this match was the sponsors on the pitch. I completely understand the reasons for the sponsors to show on the pitch and I accept that, but to have them digitally added onto the broadcast rather than painted onto the pitch was a dismal failure! The computer systems seemed unable to differentiate between the pitch itself and the players, with the players constantly disappearing as they ran “over” the sponsors. If this is technology they plan to use for the World Cup, they have a lot of work to do!

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane played host to the third and final Bledisloe Cup match of 2013. Having won both of their matches during the Rugby Championship, today’s result couldn’t affect the destination of the cup, but this match looked anything but a dead rubber. In a game full of big hits, handling errors and the odd bit of unbelievable skill, the Wallabies outscored the All Blacks 3 tries to 2 on their way to a 23-18 victory that many will feel a fitting send off to the retiring Stephen Moore and coach Mario Ledesma, who is off to take the reins of the Jaguares Super Rugby side.

 

Room for improvement

The rain in the buildup certainly won’t have helped matters, but this was an error-strewn display from both teams.final

Australia saw a number of attacks ended though handling errors. Some were due to the ball being dislodged in contact, like when Ofa Tu’ungafasi obliterated Bernard Foley, but there were also a number of passes that either didn’t go to hand or were simply dropped. On top of this, Tevita Kuridrani allowed himself to be stripped by Sonny Bill Williams in his own 22 – which eventually resulted in 3 points for New Zealand. Foley (who had missed a couple of kicks at goal before giving the tee to Reece Hodge) kicked out on the full from inside his 22 despite Wayne Barnes calling that the ball had been taken in due to TJ Perenara’s box kick being touched in flight – which resulted in Rieko Ioane scoring a try in the corner. It’s very difficult to beat the All Blacks even when playing at your best, so when Ioane scored I genuinely thought all these errors were going to cost the Wallabies.

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Wayne Barnes called that Perenara’s box kick was touched in flight straight away and could clearly be heard yelling to Foley that the ball had been taken into the 22

New Zealand, however, were far from perfect in this match. This was by no means the strongest All Blacks lineup – Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody, Jerome Kaino, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder were all missing – but it still looked strong enough to win the game. However like Australia they made too many handling errors which, combined with an impressive Australian defence stopped them getting into their usual attacking flow with any regularity. Ioane was limited to just 2 runs of any note and besides the tries, the only other chance that stuck in my mind was a chip ahead from TJ Perenara – who upped the tempo after his introduction – after a quick-tap penalty. When Sam Cane knocked on at the back of a ruck as they went in search of a game-tying try in referee’s time, it was the kind of ending that summed up the day for New Zealand. Despite an early intercepted pass for Reece Hodge’s try, Lima Sopoaga had a decent game and I feel he deserves another chance in better conditions to prove he is an able backup for Barrett.

Stupid and costly

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…It did

By far the biggest killer for New Zealand were the penalties that if I’m being kind can be described as brain-dead. Cane may have inherited Richie McCaw’s number 7 shirt but apparently not his cloak of invisibility, as he was rightly pinged by Wayne Barnes for cleaning out a man who was off to the side of a ruck as the All Blacks were mounting an attack. Incredibly this wasn’t even the most moronic penalty of the night, as Tu’ungafasi obstructed the Australian kick chase as New Zealand began a counterattack that was not going to be affected by the impeded Australian. Not only did this deny the All Blacks an attacking opportunity with the score at 20-18, but this penalty was put through the posts by Hodge’s monster right boot, leaving them needing a try to draw rather than a penalty/drop goal to win.

I have said it so many times when writing about the Lions Tour and other matches, but good discipline is vital when playing against top teams. If they continue to give away penalties like this, the All Blacks will suddenly become that bit more beatable.

Culture shock

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The commentary on Sky Sports mentioned how they would live to see the didgeridoo used in future – Picture from Flickr – Bernard Spragg. NZ

I know a lot of people aren’t fans of seeing cultural shows like the haka at sports events, but personally, I love it! As well as the expected Kapo o Pango haka from the All Blacks, the Wallabies were also showing some of their culture by celebrating the role of Indigenous Australians in rugby. The new Indigenous kit looked beautiful and with the Wallabies having a 100% record in it I’m sure it will make a return, but it was also really good to see the Welcome to Country before the national anthems.

So often we moan that rugby is becoming like all other professional sports, so I would love to see more teams and unions embracing their national history and culture as part of the matchday experience.