6-40 at half time! Not a score that would bring any comfort to Australian rugby supporters following a tumultuous week where the Western Force were summarily removed from the Super Rugby Championship for ‘financial’ reasons. Not that anyone expected the Australians were going to have parity in this test match. The Australians have won only two of their last five international games, and they were against Italy and Fiji. In the same period, the All Blacks have played three Test matches against the British and Irish Lions, and although the All Blacks were unable to win the series due to the Lions’ strength of character and some debatable refereeing in the final test, they were still hugely impressive at times and were playing a far better team than the 2017 Wallabies.
The Daily Telegraph published an interview with Australia’s Bernard Foley this morning, who described how disappointing the current situation for Australian Rugby was and how the Wallabies, in their previous match against the All Blacks, believed that they had prepared well and were up to the task. In the event, they lost 42-10 and it doesn’t remotely surprise me that a similar outcome resulted in this match. The Australians were completely outmatched in the first half, even though they appeared to have the bulk of the possession (they did, for the entire match the Wallabies had 57% possession). But the All Blacks were utterly dominant with the ball in hand, recording their first try ten minutes in through a breakaway on the far-side of the field by Liam Squire. It was at this point that the Wallabies needed to rethink their defensive alignment and not overcommit at the tackle area and whilst rushing out of the defensive line. What actually happened was that the Australians became increasingly flustered by the All Blacks superiority at the gainline, and shipped a further five tries before the end of the half, with Rieko Ioane’s effort in the corner particularly bearing note.
But as the second-half began, the All Blacks took their foot off the gas alarmingly for Steve Hansen. They did, initially, continue in the same vein as they had done in the first half, scoring tries through Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith, but the final half hour belonged entirely to the Australians, who scored four tries without response and demonstrating a fight and cohesiveness that had been sorely lacking in the early massacre. The All Blacks had by this point replaced key names such as Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody and Aaron Smith with Anton Lienert-Brown, Wyatt Crockett and TJ Perenara, but they were unable to find any real rhythm from this point on, even when Beauden Barrett came close to scoring a try having charged down Bernard Foley. And many of the Australian points came from Kiwi carelessness, Folau’s try on 69 minutes resulting from a scrappy Foley pass that could have been intercepted, only for the ball to bounce into Folau’s hands as a path to the line beckoned. Kurtley Beale’s try was of a similar vein, Damian McKenzie getting caught in possession with the ball allowing Beale to sprint away with Barrett in a close, but unsuccessful pursuit.
It was clear by this point that the All Blacks knew the game was one, but for a team who previously prided themselves on putting games out of the opposition’s reach in the 45-65-minute bracket, this was a major wake-up call and will lead Hansen to doubt the commitment of some of his replacements. I would also be surprised if McKenzie were not relegated to the bench. For the Australians, the defensive system needs a thorough overhaul before next week’s rematch, but it was exciting to see the Australian’s effort in the second half in a lost cause, and Michael Cheika will be particularly pleased with Beale, Adam Coleman and Tevita Kuridrani.
Within the context of the tournament itself, having seen South Africa beat Argentina, I can’t see any team other than New Zealand winning the title again, even if they let leads slide in the second half. Their strength in depth is better than any of the other teams in the competition and they have world class names throughout. For the Australians, their big tests will be the matches against South Africa and Argentina in Bloemfontein and Mendoza, because winning those, will likely confirm their second-place status.
That is under serious threat from the Springboks, though, who will be looking to build upon an encouraging summer test period where they triumphed over France 3-0. Although this team has much to work upon and has very few heralded names to compare against the great Victor Matfield generation, they do have real talent in Jesse Kriel, Tendai Mtawarira and Eben Etzebeth. It will be telling though to see if the likes of Siya Kolisi, Raymond Rhule and Ross Cronje can impose themselves during the tournament, because currently these are areas in which the Boks are lacking. The Argentinians are under a similar type of pressure to the Boks, in that they have been underperforming since the 2015 Rugby World Cup and are currently attempting to integrate a large number of inexperienced players into the team. Besides the experience of Nicholas Sanchez and Leonardo Senatore, the Pumas really need to step up behind the scrum rather than relying on forward-power alone. Joaquin Tuculet is a capable full-back, but those inside him have never truly performed on the world stage and were unable to effectively repel the Springboks quick handling game.
Ultimately, we all want to see a competitive Rugby Championship that isn’t a procession in black. It’s time for the three other competitors to step up and re-establish themselves as rugby powerhouses, but this year’s tournament may be too early to expect the toppling of the dynasty.