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OPINION: If a punter at the TAB had put $100 on the All Blacks to win last night he or she would have picked up a $4 payout.
When odds are stacked like that All Blacks vs Wallabies no wonder the test played out like a rugby Twilight Zone, where every expectation is upended, and the only constant is the fact excitement levels were off the scale.
It was stunning enough that the All Blacks too often could hardly put an attack together without self-inflicted damage. Four handling errors in the first four minutes from Sonny Bill Williams? Inconceivable. But it happened. Williams in fact would continue to stumble throughout the whole game, losing far too many battles with ball retention.
And it wasn’t as if all the spooky stuff was coming from the All Blacks. Bernard Foley, who most of us would have guessed might struggle to win a foot race with a strainer post, suddenly finds after-burners and races 20 metres to score. On the other hand he usually kicks with radar accuracy. Last night he seemed to have the goal posts in the cross-hairs, not the gap between them.
The Wallabies forwards, who in Sydney had played more like the Pussycats, appeared to have been taken over by alien body-snatchers, who unfortunately for New Zealand had grit, teeth, and drive, except, of course, for the scrum, when they were basically inept.
Just why the All Blacks started as sleepily as if they’d had to fly across the Indian Ocean in economy class, and been billeted in a Youth Hostel next to a motorway exit, will possibly remain a mystery for the ages.
Rays of hope for the second spell, and for the rest of the season, came in very different forms.
There is now no question that Rieko Ioane is the real deal on the wing. It certainly helps that he has such stunning speed, but the huge add-on he offers is awareness of space and support players.
Growing up he wasn’t especially big so at high school, before he sprouted to his current imposing 1.89m, he played mostly in the midfield, and those early skills have never deserted him.
Owen Franks has been a rock in the scrum for so long it felt weird to discover he does actually have parts of his body that aren’t made of sprung steel and barbed wire.
So it was something of a relief to see Nepo Laulala slot into the tighthead spot with such strength and technique the Australian scrum sometimes showed all the tensile strength of crepe paper.
So what does the fact the All Blacks had to desperately scrap and scrape their way to a win actually mean for both sides?
For the Wallabies a huge rise in optimism. Yes, when the pressure became almost unbearable at times in the second spell the Australians were offside, and caught for it so often it was strange that at least one yellow card wasn’t dished out.
Against Argentina and South Africa they may be buckled, maybe even broken, in the scrums, but in general play, if they can find levels they reached last night they’ll be a huge threat.
The All Blacks? You might think, having grabbed a stunning get out of gaol victory, there’d be a temptation to, as Steve Hansen once said, to “flush the dunny and move on.”
But that’s never been the way All Blacks teams operate. The fact is things were very bad before they got better, and their video analysis will be lengthy and brutal.
And if Hansen ever sensed even a tiny touch of complacency in a lead-up before a test in the rest of the year, all he’ll need to do is draw a player aside and murmur, “Come here son, I’ve got a video from Dunedin I’d like to show you.”Given the way the Wallabies are going they possibly could, but such a routine wouldn’t be advisable. All Blacks vs Wallabies Live
Honouring the late Sir Colin Meads with a win is at the forefront of the New Zealanders’ minds. You don’t give a sucker an even break in test footy.
Hansen is sure to have been chirping that line throughout the week.
2. What should we expect from Dane Coles?
The All Blacks hooker says he could have played in the 54-34 win over the Aussies in Sydney last week but was rested as a precautionary measure after suffering headaches while in camp.
It has been nine months since Coles played a test, against France in Paris last November, because he suffered concussion while playing for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby. You could say his legs should be pretty fresh.
This, his 50th test, marks a significant milestone in his career. A competitive sort, Coles will want to make a significant contribution. Potentially, he could be sighted out wide where he can loosen-up a defensive line with his running game and offloads.
3. Is the game a sell-out?
Close to it. About a thousand tickets remained unsold last night. Forsyth Barr Stadium has a capacity of around 28,000. This is a sign of the times. Once upon a time, not so long ago, some rugby desperadoes would have contemplated selling their favourite pet just to get their hands on a ticket to Bledisloe Cup match.
Molly the house cat is pretty safe nowadays. Last week only around 55,000 people watched Bledisloe I in Sydney, the cavernous ANZ Stadium was half empty.
New Zealanders, like the Aussies, are picking and choosing what games to attend. In the wake of the British and Irish Lions tour, the battle for the Bledisloe is more like a pillow fight.
4. What is the weather like in Dunedin?
Overcast with a hint of drizzle in the air, since you ask.
But it is daft question, really. The enclosed stadium in Dunedin ensures there will be no worries about the ball being greasy. Running rugby, you cannot beat it. Expect both teams to shift the pill around, especially in that final 30 minutes.
Last week it was the Aussies who carved-up during the late period and that is something the All Blacks are keen to address.
5. Which Wallabies player has the most to prove tonight?
Fullback Israel Folau is worth keeping an eye on. When he is on his game, he is world-class. He just need 14 other blokes wearing the green and gold to help him out of the Aussies are to win in New Zealand for the first time since 2001. Good luck, Izzy. It could be a long night. All Blacks vs Wallabies