On Saturday, just before the decisive Bledisloe Test kicked off, former dual international Sonny Bill Williams was asked his opinion on which team would win. After studying both teams on paper, Williams went with the All Blacks. It was a simple, but astute, observation.
New Zealand duly secured the Bledisloe Cup for a 19th consecutive year with a record 57-22 win against the Wallabies in Auckland, having won the opening Test 33-25 at the same ground a week earlier, a triumph that extends the trans-Tasman hoodoo to 35 years.
The difference in the level of talent between the two was accurately reflected by the 35-point margin – with the possible exception of openside flanker Michael Hooper and winger Marika Koroibete, no Wallabies player would make the All Blacks’ starting line-up.
The Wallabies played well in patches but, across the park, do not have 23 players with the ability and experience to seriously challenge. Even despite this fact, Australia continue to exclude a group of high-quality overseas-based players from representing their country. Only three who play their trade abroad – Duncan Paia’aua, Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi – were selected in the wider squad, though none played played here. Another group, including second-rowers Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Adam Coleman, back-rower Sean McMahon, utility back Kurtley Beale and hooker Tolu Latu, remain ineligible or unavailable.
The lop-sidedness of the Bledisloe Cup has reached a crisis point. More disturbing than Saturday night’s scoreline was the half-empty Eden Park stadium. There are still tickets available for the dead rubber in Perth in two weeks’ time. Should the All Blacks continue their dominance, the series itself risks sliding into irrelevance.
There are reports Rugby Australia is looking at a further “loosening” of the so-called Giteau Law – under which overseas-based players with more than 60 Tests caps are eligible for the Wallabies – to bring players such as Arnold, Skelton, McMahon and others back into the fold. Kerevi and Paia’aua qualified following an amendment to the rule to allow for two overseas-based players with less than 60 Test caps to be selected. It is understood Rugby Australia originally wanted the number of overseas players in this category to be five, not two, but this was opposed by the Super Rugby franchises. It is likely this is what the national governing body will push for.
Having access to all – or, at least, most – of Australia’s best players would not guarantee victory against New Zealand, but it would make Dave Rennie’s side more competitive. In the meantime, more work must be done to bridge the yawning gap with their foes across the ditch
Rennie has placed much emphasis on physical aggression, now it is time to address the team’s mental toughness. An ominous sign for the Wallabies was a tweet posted by All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith before the game, which read: “Got that big-game feels!” The Wallabies suggested the pressure was on the Kiwis because they would not want to be part of the team which lost at Eden Park for the first time since 1994. However, it is well-documented that New Zealanders thrive on pressure.
Conversely, Australia seem to perform their best in this tie when the pressure is off. Since 2003 they have not once won a deciding Bledisloe Cup Test. They have managed the occasional first Test or dead rubber, but not a game that really counts. This fragile mentality manifested itself again on Saturday. The beginning of the end for the Wallabies came in the 41st minute. The All Blacks led 21-15 when their Nop 8 Ardie Savea was yellow-carded. From the ensuing penalty the Wallabies had a throw into a five-metre lineout. The ball was not straight; opportunity wasted.
In the 10-minute period Savea was in the sin-bin, the 14-man All Blacks outscored the Wallabies 10-0 to race to a 31-15 lead. The pressure should have been on New Zealand. Instead, it was the Wallabies who crumbled. A couple of minutes later the All Blacks stretched the lead to 38-15 after winger Sevu Reece intercepted a long ball from Wallabies inside-centre Matt To’omua to race 40 metres to score.
New Zealand’s second intercept of the game following centre Rieko Ioane’s try in the third minute – their third of the series. Some say intercepts are lucky, against the run of play, but they are a good example of what the All Blacks do best, which is capitalise on poor execution and mistakes.
The Wallabies dominated possession and territory but did not “treasure” the ball, a fatal error against such opportunistic opposition.
The Australians will try to avoid a whitewash when they host the third Test in Perth, where they upset the Kiwis 47-26 in 2019. Rennie should strongly consider starting Kerevi, who was unavailable for the second Test, at inside-centre, rather than just having him in the squad as injury cover – he joined the Wallabies after playing for the Australian sevens side at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Wallabies midfield has been ineffectual in the first two matches and Australia will have more chance of winning with the hard-running Kerevi in the run on side. Even then, they will still be out-gunned by a starry All Blacks side – at least on paper.