AUCKLAND, NZ – It’s been a long, long time since the Wallabies have had the Bledisloe Cup or tasted victory on Eden Park, and they got a stark reminder of why last night. They were torn apart by the All Blacks in a brutal 20 minute period after halftime that more than made up for last weekend’s misfire in Sydney, with a few players answering their critics in fine style.
At Eden Park, Auckland: All Blacks 41 (Dane Coles, Ma’a Nonu 2, Conrad Smith tries, penalty try, Dan Carter 2 pen, 5 con) Wallabies 13 (Israel Folau try, Quade Cooper 2 pen, Nic White con)
The rain that’d been getting Auckland residents thinking about rounding up two of each animal into their arks thankfully cleared up and left by the time kickoff happened, meaning that the All Blacks could hopefully get their running game going. However, in one of the more questionable game plan decisions in recent memory, the home side seemed content to simply kick away possession for the first 20 minutes. Not because they were under any particular pressure from the Wallabies, the kicks came from everywhere on the field and nearly all seemed to land directly in the arms of Israel Folau. For the capacity crowd and anyone watching around NZ it was incredibly baffling.
However, if the goal was to lull the Wallabies into a false sense of expectation, then it worked. Dan Carter strode into a gap a mile wide and within 20 metres managed to show a metaphorical middle finger to anyone who is doubting his ability leading into the RWC. He then found Dane Coles, who peeled off an incredible 40 metre curving run to the try line. A couple of penalties each meant that the halftime score was 13-6, the Wallabies had a couple of chances but no real periods of sustained pressure despite all their gifted possession.
After the break the All Blacks had obviously decided they’d had enough of kicking the ball away and did what they do best, albeit with a bit of help from Quade Cooper. Nehe Milner-Skudder, who had been barely used other to chase kicks, used his step to blast through the Wallaby defensive line and throw a sensational offload to Aaron Smith 10 metres out. Cooper then threw a shocker of a stiff arm to Smith’s head, referee Nigel Owens then had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try and sending Cooper to the bin. All of a sudden the gap was now 20-6 and the All Blacks had the sniff of blood.
Some slick hands from Owen Franks, Coles and Sam Whitelock led to Ma’a Nonu being left with half the field open for him to trot over and score, shortly after he had a bit more work to do to bash over for his second. Some more relentless pressure saw Conrad Smith score untouched on the other side of the field, by now the score was 41-6 and the Wallabies were staring at a potential record loss. They avoided complete embarrassment (I use the term ‘avoided’ very liberally) when the All Blacks emptied their bench and managed to pull one try back to Israel Folau. It came when TJ Perenara, who had obviously not paying attention at halftime, put in an ineffectual cross kick to the fullback, who easily snatched it out of the air and sped 60 metres to score.
Man Of The Match: Probably the one thing that put everyone’s minds at rest was Dan Carter’s accuracy off the tee. He only missed one shot at goal, a long range penalty came up short, but the conversions that will be crucial in the RWC were slotted effortlessly.
So: Bledisoe Cup retained, a massively improved performance and a fantastic sendoff to a group of All Blacks playing their last tests on NZ soil. While it was a pretty good night for the home side and their fans, there still were a few things that could be ironed out. Ma’a Nonu put to bed any debate over whether SBW had any claim to his position in the number 12 jersey with a huge game, however his fellow Hurricane Julian Savea still seems a bit off the pace. The Bus should’ve been wreaking havoc in the period after halftime, however was barely sighted while Milner-Skudder came in off his wing to make a huge impression in the lead up to the penalty try.
At the back, Ben Smith put in another solid display with ball in hand and on defense, but also proved that he has no business putting up attacking bombs. Well, at least to Israel Folau anyway. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have taken much of a scouting report to realise that Folau played in the NRL and AFL, so catching bombs, especially poor ones, is something he can do in his sleep. The only possible explanation for the All Blacks commitment to the high kick was that Quade Cooper generally gets shifted to fullback on defense and putting the ball into his hands under pressure would force the New Zealand-born first five to do something stupid. To be fair, it worked once; Cooper shelled a pretty easy take to gift the All Blacks a lineout inside the Wallaby 22. But the risk of getting Folau involved as much as that tactic did hardly justifies its usage.
From the Wallaby perspective, it’s very much a case of deja vu. After their surprising win last week they would’ve come in feeling very confident, only to have their hopes not just dashed but smeared all over their faces for good measure. Last year it was the beginning of a horrific downward slide into ignominious losses and squad dissension, they’ve got a month to sort that out before they have to contend with the toughest pool the RWC.
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