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It goes without saying that the All Blacks vs Wallabies didn’t play well in Dunedin on Saturday evening, that they were off their game — so it will go without saying, at least in this column.
No one offered up that excuse for the Wallabies a week earlier in Sydney. We, all of us, had seen only the upside of the Wallabies having had a full month to prepare for the All Blacks, while the New Zealanders still had their heads buried in Super Rugby.
We all saw the advantages of training time and overlooked the benefits of playing time. No one even considered that the All Blacks would come to ANZ Stadium match-hardened and mentally much sharper than the Australians and might overwhelm the Wallabies even before they had started to play.
There were, in fact, genuine reasons why the Wallabies struggled in Sydney but, frankly, we have all been so seduced by the All Blacks and their brilliance that we put their first-half flurry of tries down to their dazzling play, neglecting the wider picture that for the majority of Australian players, it was their first game since July 15 — read July 21 for the four Brumbies in the side.Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It gives a sense of the wider picture. It’s also explains why the least surprised person at the Wallabies revival was Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach.Asked whether the Wallabies had turned a corner in Dunedin, Hansen responded by questioning whether there had been a corner to turn. He had always sensed that Australia had that kind of performance in them. The question is: why didn’t we?
Perhaps, amid all the dross, we hadn’t seen the spark of inspiration. We almost didn’t see it on Saturday night. Had Damian McKenzie’s pass 20 seconds into the game connected with Ben Smith instead of Israel Folau, then it would have been the All Blacks scoring in the first minute, not Australia. A blow like that, coming on top of all the blows inflicted in Sydney, might have sabotaged the Wallaby revival before it even began.
Thankfully, it didn’t because the rugby that resulted was enthralling and as marvellous as it was to watch the Wallabies on full attack, it was just as wonderful to watch the All Blacks desperately defend.
It wasn’t panic, as such, from the men in black as they scrambled back in cover but there were moments of disarray, instants of doubt. Inevitably, order was restored and the All Blacks finished the match as we always feared they would, but just for a few tantalising minutes we were given a glimpse of life free from the New Zealand yoke. We came to realise that we have been conditioned in the past to half a Wallabies performance, delivered by players who probably suspected they had far more within themselves but didn’t have a clue how to access it.
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Kurtley Beale had played 61 Tests before he ventured on to Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night and not in any of them has he performed as he did in Test No 62. His attack has always been exceptional, his defence conspicuously less so. But on Saturday, he owned Sonny Bill Williams. I can scarcely believe I have written that, but there was a moment when SBW flinched as Beale bore down on him.
We perhaps could join the chorus of NZ writers who have suggested that Williams was more affected than was supposed by that head whack he suffered in Sydney and that he should not have played. But he put his hand up to play, so on his head be it. It might happen only once or it might, instead, be the beginning of a trend. But on Saturday night in old Dunedin town, SBW was owned by KB.
And who would have suspected Sean McMahon could play as he did? Well, actually we all did. It’s just that we didn’t think that he could do it against the really big boys, against the All Blacks. We based this on exhaustive research, namely the Sydney Test when he played against NZ for the very first time and made no impression. So we marked him down on that score and wondered why on earth Cheika had selected him again at No 8. And then he showed us how and why we were wrong.
There were revelatory moments like this across the park. Will Genia hasn’t had a night like Saturday since July 9, 2011, when he teased and tantalised the Crusaders and held them at bay while he ran 60m for the matchwinning try in the Queensland Reds’ victory in the All Blacks vs Wallabies Live final. Less ostentatiously, Sekope Kepu had a night when he proved to himself he too has still got it. The Wallabies scrum was in desperate trouble when he was introduced to the game. It was pretty much trouble averted for the rest of the match.
For just about every Wallaby, there was a moment of self-discovery. Not all of them, sadly, were satisfying. Some were heartbreaking.
We may, for instance, never see Stephen Moore starting again at hooker, at least not against the men in black. But for the man who replaced him as Australia’s captain, Michael Hooper, this was when he truly took charge of the Wallabies. There was, however, one carry-over from the Sydney Tests. As Andrew Slack put it, name another international captain whose side has scored seven unanswered Test tries against the All Blacks.
This all has to be set against the backdrop of another defeat, another Bledisloe Cup series where the questions asked of the All Blacks were tough, but not tough enough. Something is still missing in this Wallabies side. Had it been there, they would have seen out those desperate final two minutes. But they couldn’t. There was a feeling of inevitability about the outcome, as though Jonah Lomu had come alive and taken his place on the All Blacks left wing.
The day, however, is coming when the New Zealand hold over Australian rugby will be broken. How sweet it tasted in those few minutes that followed Beale’s try — even if in the end all we left with was the bitterness of another defeat.
But it’s there, and it’s real.Call off the funeral. The Wallabies proved there is still life in Australian rugby after pushing New Zealand to the brink in their second meeting of this year’s Rugby Championship.Michael Cheika’s side were hardly given a prayer by those inside and outside Australia in the run up to facing the All Blacks in Dunedin, largely off the back of the 54-34 drubbing they received the previous week in Sydney. However a 35-29 loss at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, after Beauden Barrett’s dramatic late try, saw the Wallabies depart without a win but with their pride restored.
Forwards Rory Arnold and Sean McMahon were exceptional and scrum-half Will Genia rolled back the years with a majestic solo score. Bernard Foley’s goal-kicking however proved costly, with the fly-half missing three conversions and penalty.Despite the lift in performance Cheika was frustrated afterwards over the lack of a refereeing decision when All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick appeared to upend Ned Hanigan, although primarily at having missed out on a first win in New Zealand since 2001.
“He’s got his arms through his leg, picked him up and then it’s a free pass. The guy can’t end up on his (head) any other way… just as well he didn’t break his neck,” Cheika said.“We deserved to win. It’s just really disappointing for the players. “They have put in a lot of effort and have copped a lot of grief from back home and given it everything.Australia led 22-21 heading into the final ten minutes, thanks to establishing an early 17-0 lead through tries by Israel Folau, Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley in the first half before inevitably New Zealand responded.
A Ben Smith try on 71 minutes looked to have swung the game the way of the All Blacks, only for Kurtley Beale to upset the script with his try under the posts with under five minutes to go in a quite outstanding Test match.
That forced New Zealand to dig deep once more and snatch the win as the world-class trio of Kieran Read, TJ Perenara and Barrett combined for the fly-half and reigning World Rugby Player of the Year to clinch the win with time running out.
Saturday’s victory also means New Zealand retain the Bledisloe Cup with a game to go, having now held the trophy since 2003.”Really, really proud of the boys,” New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen said. “To give a side like Australia 17 points at the All Blacks vs Wallabies Live Stream start and to keep their composure and just be three behind at halftime, then hit the front and then lose it again near the end. Really proud of them.