In a game that had everything you want out of rugby, the Wallabies failed to capitalise on a healthy share of possession and territory, and have yet again lost to the All Blacks.
Despite the result, about which we’re all still chewing bile, there was a glimmer there; a team that played with a bit of physicality, some pride. They really looked like they were out there doing it for each other, and for one of the most consistent and hardworking players of our time, Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Most importantly for those of us looking on, they looked like they were doing it for the fans. There has been a lot of shit going on the last couple of weeks that you can find ample coverage of elsewhere, but here I’m just going to talk about what I think is the best performance of the year.
From the first whistle there was a real intent from the Wallabies. In contact we weren’t just folding, or tackling with the arms. Players were getting a shoulder on and making it count. Black shirts were going to deck, and then men in gold were doing their damndest to swarm over them.
The first ten minutes was typical of the feeling out process in Test rugby. Some nervous kicks, a few handling errors – which All Black fans might call uncharacteristic of their side – and some solid contact to draw the battle lines.
After the customary penalty against the Wallaby scrum, the visitors got their lineout working but after a few phases the ball popped loose and Higginbotham’s kick upfield slipped out of Tomane’s grip. Some quick hands by the ABs and Conrad Smith suddenly looked likely to get close before being absolutely smashed by Kuridrani.
At the subsequent lineout, the ball went one out, and while Hooper looked to have snatched it despite a diving McCaw, at the next phase Fardy did just that. The Wallabies kicked for touch and off the subsequent lineout Lealiifano completely bamboozled his opposite number, with Folau in support, putting the home side in the attacking 22.
The next 6 phases is a litany of Joubert watching the men in black off their feet, in from the side, and loitering at the ruck, without doing anything. Rather than point and shout, Nick Phipps kept up a steady stream of excellent ball before diving over himself. After Foley knocked over a regulation kick, it was 7-0.
As they are wont to do, the ABs hit back hard and quickly from the restart. First securing the ball through Conrad Smith, then going wide before Read popped and excellent ball to Corey Jayne to score in the corner. Barrett brought the kick in nicely to tie it up at 7-all, and Wallaby fans sank a little lower in their seats. I made a note at this point – 20 minute mark – that if the pace of this game kept up, we’d be in trouble a long time before the ABs due to what I think is our lack of fitness.
The restart saw the All Blacks knock on again trying to go wide, and while Slipper got called again for hinging at the scrum, the ABs were turned over at ruck time by Fardy again, and the Wallabies managed to head off upfield. As with the game in Sydney, when the Wallabies held the ball and took a few small variations in their option taking, the All Blacks didn’t seem to have an answer. A lot of ball from Phipps and Foley went into the second or third channel, and the gain line was breached more often than not. It is also a key note that with a ref like Joubert, you are far better off with the ball than without it, as McCaw and his minions were discovering.
Despite all this, after the first few phases the Wallaby alignment wasn’t good enough, and the attack started to stagnate. The pattern of the game settled into All Black error, followed by Wallaby surge, followed by stagnation in attack.
Eventually Barrett was caught in a rather stupid offside position, kicking at the ball, and the subsequent 5m lineout saw the Wallabies attempt a maul. While it was initially halted, it started to build momentum again, before Read reached over and slapped the ball out of a player’s hand. When you’re 5 metres from your own line and you do that, you’re playing with yellow cards in my opinion, but Joubers just went for the whistle.
The next lineout saw why the Wallabies aren’t quite there yet, and it was mainly due to Sam Carter not quite getting his body position right. The ABs countermauled and won the scrum feed, and an opportunity was gone.
After a fairly competitive push, the Wallabies were 30 metres out in prime attacking position. A great lob to Hooper at the back resulted in McCaw tackling him, then rolling straight into Phipps’ feet, for which he received a final team warning at the 32 minute mark. Foley kicked the penalty, but the key thing is to note: team warning, ruck infringements, 32 minute mark.
From the restart the Wallabies took the ball confidently but a pop pass cannoned off Slipper and a scrum was set. The AB scrum set up a nice little 8-9-15 move, then brought it back left for Coles to waltz over untouched, as Foley shot out of the line and the cover was caught napping. Barrett, in one of his trademark efforts, missed a regulation kick and sent the haters into overdrive.
With their heads now screwed on, the Wallabies decided to give less fucks about being tired and start engaging more with the passing and the running bit. Some great leadup running, and quick ball from the base, saw Kurdrani, Hooper, Kepu, and Higgers all make great metres with the ball, before Foley dived over in the corner. As the conversion drifted wide the halftime score was 15-12.
It was really noticeable just how much ground the Wallabies were making two wide of the ruck when I looked at my notes. One of the key elements here in my not-so-humble opinion was Christian Lealiifano. He’s had a bit of an up and down season at the Brumbies, but his ability to set up the outside man, while playing a dual role with Foley, was quite impressive. His defence was also outstanding throughout the game and to me he appears a more natural 12 than Toomua.
The missed tackle stats were 19 to the All Blacks and 9 to the Wallabies as the second half got underway, though this was more a result of the possession statistic being about 60% in the home side’s favour.
Typically, the restart was knocked on by the Wallabies, and while the All Blacks set nicely, their handling was tentative, and they once again turned it over.
The ball started to go through hands in the 0-1 channels, with handling superb and everything just sticking. The turnover ball advanced over halfway, then Folau, Higgers, and Fardy are all involved in the leadup to a try for the centurion Ashley-Cooper, showing a little jink and dive to equal Campo’s try scoring record against the ABs. Suddenly its 22-12 and Wallabies fans dare to dream.
Steve Hansen must have been wondering just what the hell was going on as his players started to look distinctly different to the team that won in Auckland,
The medical staff are also quite busy at this point, as the joint looks like a walking ebola ward, blood spurting everywhere. Its a hell of a game.
A decision by Simmons to run instead of pass results in a penalty to the visitors, and its back to a 7 point ball game as White comes on for Phipps. A box kick from Smith after the restart is cleaned up nicely and Tomane charges through. But Foley fails to execute the cross kick for the opposite wing, and the mark is cleared to touch. After Tomane is stripped at the subsequent lineout, Foley knocks on 40 out from goal and lo, my people, a miracle occurs!
The All Black scrum, with its replacement lock and front row, gets demolished by the Wallabies. Foley puts the Wallabies back to a 10 point lead.
When the young lock Tuipolotou is yellow carded for taking Simmons in the air at the restart, it starts to just look like it might happen. Another error from Carter at a ruck gives the ABs the ball back, but a textbook steal from Hodgson relieves the pressure.
That bloke McCaw then gets in everyone’s way, stealing the lineout and allowing the ABs to set up but they knock on AGAIN. At this point you can see that a lot of black shirted fans after the game are going to be saying “bro, we were shut!” They’d have a case.
The next five minutes is a blur, with Wallaby replacements providing some great cleanout and direct running, but the turnovers flowing both ways. Foley is 5 metres out and offloads to Alexander who drops it – another try gone begging – before the visitors’ counterattack is turned over by Tomane, and then he gets turned over in turn… if that’s even a thing.
In a short stop for players to catch their breath, and stop bleeding so profusely, the ABs must have got together and had a deep conversation about manning up. Because from this point, the bench guys who were getting belted start to really strap a pair on and make some hits.
The result is a drive upfield, and the Wallabies giving away several advantages before Aaron Smith quick taps and dives over. I note at this point that Quade still isn’t on, and idly wonder why as I’m shitting myself (figuratively).
The support play of the Wallabies started to drop off as Tuipolotou comes back for the last ten minutes. Lilo gets turned over, and the ABs set up a big maul but spin it instead of trying to capitalise, and Hooper turns them over at the next ruck. The nervousness of the situation is starting to get to White, as despite having a pretty good passing game so far, he starts putting up box kicks. I have a flash forward to us losing after the siren.
McCaw is penalised again (which I assume is his final personal warning and doesn’t come under the final team warning issued earlier), and White slots a decent kick to put the Wallabies 28-22 in front.
Then that man Cane steps in again – man is he johnny on the spot when it comes to turning a ball over or winning a penalty. But the possession isn’t clean as both sides yet again turn ball over, before White cleans up one of his own messes.
The Wallaby bench forwards seem to have forgotten how to pick n go at this point, running upright into the AB brick wall in way that screams “I DON’T WANT TO WIN! PLEASE TURN ME OVER IN A COMPLETELY LEGITIMATE MANNER!”
As this shit fight slowly coalesces into a turd sandwich, White box kicks into touch.
Box. Kicks. Into. Touch.
I double check that the TV isn’t lying. I double check that I haven’t shit myself in rage and/or stupor. Everything there seems legit, so then I prepare to curl into the foetal position as the ABs, true to my earlier soothsaying, dive over. Colin Slade, despite barely looking old enough to drink passion pop at your nephew’s 18th, slotted the kick with seeming nonchalance.
The feeling that washed over me as I turned off the TV was like seeing an old friend, who you really don’t want to see because by “old friend” you mean “complete arsehole who thought it would be funny to get drunk and shit in the toaster last time they were around.” I often wonder at this feeling, because somehow its harder to take a loss that could-have-been, than it is to take a complete thrashing like in Auckland.
On the plus side, this was a great game of rugby. This was a good advertisement for the game. Heaps of blood, guts, effort, and character. All the cliches, really.
I can’t really name a single player who disappointed me overall. Some of their actions were poorly executed, but by and large every one of them gets a pass mark and above.
Maybe the bench guys could have worked a bit harder at the end, but I always had a sneaking suspicion the AB bench would be better than ours, and so it turned out.
The hard part is the ongoing disappointments; the areas where the improvement is NOT coming and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of appearing soon.
Primarily, Hooper’s style of captaincy doesn’t make time for referee management, particularly with regard to the ruck tactics of the All Blacks under pressure. The loitering they willfully engage in is a key aspect of All Black play these days, where a player isn’t necessarily on the ball, but isn’t too far away from it either. A good captain would ask the ref if he “just wouldn’t mind having a look, sir?” because he felt it was “interrupting the flow of the game”.
Restarts are a key factor in rugby – if you’re going to score, then great! But if you’re just going to concede straight away, well, you suck. Our performance here simply isn’t good enough, and that our players don’t seem to stay switched on after a score.
Besides that, and sawing the leg off any halfback who box kicks the ball ever again, I see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel if we can sort out a new coach quick enough.
But is it a train coming the other way?
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