WWith the wind swirling and light rain falling, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper noted that conditions were “not too favorable” before the start of the first round of the Bledisloe Cup. What the Wallabies learned for the next 80 minutes at Eden Park was that the worst conditions always favor the most capable boaters.
On Saturday night, once again, the All Blacks headed for victory. The 33-25 scoreline was apparently credible, but it flattered the Australians. The Wallabies’ boosters will be encouraged by the fact that the two teams scored four attempts apiece, fifth-eighth Noah Lolesio left 12 points on the field on missed shots and Australia made a heartwarming comeback in the second half.
But if the Wallabies think the performance has put them in a position to level the series at Eden Park on Saturday, they’re kidding themselves. It has become a pattern in recent years that they invariably play the best they can against the All Blacks when there is no pressure.
Unlike their two valiant victories against France last month, the Wallabies’ comeback against the All Blacks came at a time when the game was effectively over. After leading 16-8 at the break, New Zealand raced to an unassailable 33-8 lead with three attempts by Richie Mo’unga, David Havili and Damian McKenzie in the space of 13 minutes.
Australia was never going to score more than 25 points in the final 15 minutes to win the game, but they managed to score three face-saving attempts to make the score look more respectable.
The Wallabies cannot afford to be seduced by what appeared to be a credible loss. They were badly beaten by a team that didn’t play as well as it can. Winger Sevu Reece’s spectacular long-range attempt, but not allowed, early in the second half was an indication of what the All Blacks are truly capable of.
In fact, the return of the Wallabies may backfire on Saturday, as any complacency that may have crept into the All Blacks psyche will have been erased.
Compared to the tie of 16 in the corresponding test in Wellington last year, the Australians appear to have regressed. In the second test last year, the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies 27-7 at Eden Park and a similar fate can await the Golden Men on the same field on Saturday.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has seven days to devise a plan that causes one of the biggest upsets in the history of the trans-Tasman series.
On Saturday, Hooper regretted that the Wallabies finished games well but did not start well. Does Australia have enough talent to build a 23-man team that can start and finish strong?
Actually, the Wallabies didn’t start out that bad. They probably should have led 10-9 at halftime, but Lolesio missed a conversion attempt late in the half and Hooper committed a penalty on the restart, leading Reece to score.
But it was really bad discipline from the All Blacks that kept the Wallabies in the game before the break. Australians can’t trust Kiwis to be that wayward again. They are still accepting Rennie’s introduction of a New Zealand-style kicking and attacking tactic into their game plan.
Twice in the first half, winger Andrew Kellaway and center Hunter Paisami kicked badly when they overlapped. It was only when Lolesio grubber kicked for fullback Tom Banks ‘second down in the 74th minute that the Wallabies found space behind their opponents’ defense. By then it was too late.
Winger Marika Koroibete and No. 8 Isi Naisarani will be available after being skipped from the first Trial due to a late-night drinking session, giving Rennie more selection options for the second Trial.
The first thing Rennie needs to do to give his team any chance is to fix the lineout, which struggled to deliver a clean, usable possession. After failing to secure decent possession in their first five pitches, Australia resorted to tricks with two non-competitive lineouts that led to Kellaway’s runaway try in the 35th minute, but that’s not a solution to the lineout problem over the course of the game. 80 minutes.
There is a strong case for second rower Matt Philip to enter the starting lineup with Lukhan Salakaia-Loto switching to the blindside flank, giving the Wallabies more lineup options. The Wallabies are fast and fit, but they need to add another ‘F’ to their game: fury. Rennie needs to put together the strongest and most aggressive forward pack possible, which means starting close head tip Taniela Tupou, Naisarani and perhaps rookie loose head tip Angus Bell.
At the rear, Koroibete should start on one wing, but who does he replace? Kellaway or Jordan Petaia (who had limited opportunities)? When center Matt Toomua came in towards the end, he provided the Wallabies midfield with the passing skills it lacked, but it was a five-minute cameo long enough to convince Rennie to start the previously out-of-shape veteran ahead of a solid player like Len. Ikitau?
There is no question that the Wallabies can improve. But the scary thing is that the All Blacks can do it too, even in the most unfavorable conditions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism