AUCKLAND, NZ – There’s a serious problem in Australian rugby right now. No, it’s not the player and coaching dramas that have dominated headlines over the last couple of weeks culminating in the shock resignation of Ewen McKenzie overnight. Nor is it the fact that no one in the current squad has ever had their hands on the Bledisloe Cup. It’s that, for some strange reason, the Wallabies collective mindset has somehow forgotten that rugby matches are 80 MINUTES LONG. Their last three matches have seen them put in winning performances for around 70 minutes of each test: In Cape Town they were blown away by the fast finishing Springboks. In Mendoza they were ground out by Los Pumas. Then, last night in the cruelest twist of fate, they were robbed by the team they wanted to beat the most. After looking like the team they’ve been threatening to be all of 2014, the Wallabies faltered in the 79th minute and the All Blacks simply walked through the front door, took everything and made a clean getaway.
All Blacks 29 (Cory Jane, Dane Coles, Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa tries, Beauden Barrett 2 con, pen, Colin Slade con) Wallabies 28 (Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper tries, Foley 3 pen, 2 con, Nic White pen)
What was supposed to be an All Black beatdown to put a full stop on the southern hemisphere season turned out to be an enthralling contest between one team that had a serious point to prove and one that had everything to lose. The Wallabies showed their hand early, obviously taking the blueprint from the Boks triumph a couple of weeks ago and running the ball hard at the All Blacks, particularly in the midfield. After a couple of early probes, recalled second five Christian Leali’ifano stepped inside his rookie opposite Malakai Fekitoa to ultimately set up a ruck a metre out from the try line. Halfback Nick Phipps didn’t hesitate and dove over for the opening try. Bernard Foley converted and the All Blacks realised this wasn’t going to be the walkover everyone expected. In fact, they managed to remedy the situation off the next kickoff, which Conrad Smith snatched out of the air to give them excellent field position. From there, the ball was shifted wide to another recalled player, Cory Jane, who had a bit of work to do to crash over in the corner. In the blink of an eye it was 7-7 as Beauden Barrett knocked over the sideline conversion. From there the game settled down a bit until Richie McCaw was pinged at a ruck, which Foley turned into another three points. However, things burst back into life before halftime. Firstly All Black hooker Dane Coles showed outrageous skill by a front row forward to dummy and sidestep his way through the Wallaby defense to score and give the visitors the lead for the first time. Not to be outdone, Foley managed to bag himself a try on the halftime whistle after great lead up work by his captain Michael Hooper.
If everyone was a little bit shocked that the Wallabies were up 15-12 at half time, they were positively blown out of their seats when Adam Ashley-Cooper scored shortly after the resumption of play. The winger, playing in his 100th test, benefitted from some brilliance from his centre Tevita Kuridrani, who was having another very strong game. Foley followed that up with another penalty shortly after, which was matched by Barrett, but all of a sudden the very strong looking Wallabies held a 10 point lead. They were helped by All Black replacement Patrick Tuipolotu, who, off the restart, got himself sent to the sin bin for a clumsy mid-air collision with Rob Simmons. However, all the Wallabies could make of their one-man advantage was a penalty to replacement halfback Nic White. The All Blacks finally started stringing some phases together fluently for the first time in the match and dominated possession and territory for the last 10 minutes, firstly scoring through an audacious quick-tap by Aaron Smith. Then came the real drama, firstly with the All Blacks being awarded a penalty which Colin Slade looked to have turned into a perfect touch finder one metre out from the Wallabies line. Except for one crucial problem: the ball didn’t go out, winger Joe Tomane doing an amazing job to keep it in. From there the Wallabies should have ground out the win, but for some reason White sent a harmless box kick into touch which gave the All Blacks one last chance at possession. In scenes reminiscent of Dublin last year the All Blacks patiently worked their way up to the line and probed the Wallaby defense, until finally striking through a huge gap that Fekitoa burst through to make the score 28-27. Slade, probably by now very thankful that this game will now not be remembered for him missing touch, didn’t make any mistake with the conversion and the All Blacks breathed a massive sigh of relief.
Did the All Blacks deserve to win this game? Probably not, but the fact is they still found a way to and that’s why they’re the best team in the world. Despite some patches of absolute brilliance like Coles’ try and the final movement to score the winner, they were very flat and were plagued by the handling errors that cost them at Ellis Park. The line out was a bit wobbly in the first half, however the scrum was solid and gave the backs good ball to work with. One of the main concerns would more be the player that didn’t seem feature rather than those that did, namely Julian Savea. The world’s most dangerous winger was completely unemployed for the whole game, which is bizarre given his ability and recent form. Richie McCaw had a masterful performance, riding the edge of the law and getting penalized a couple of times, but coming up with some clutch turnovers. Aaron Smith annoyingly spent most of the game flinging his arms around and yelling at referee Craig Joubert, before finally shutting up and scoring an important try.
Had the Wallabies hung on, we’d be toasting performances of the likes of Kuridrani, Foley (who had his best match in a Wallaby jersey) and Phipps. Ashley-Cooper had the honour of being the first Australian to score a try in his 100th test, but I’m sure he’d trade it in for a victory. Their ambush tactics from the kickoff rattled the All Blacks and didn’t let off until well into the second half. Hooper was again inspirational to his troops, one can’t help but think how much more effective he’d be with a little more bulk. Unfortunately the drama didn’t end for the Wallabies at full time, under-fire coach Ewen McKenzie sensationally stepping down after claiming he’d lost the respect of the players. There’s far more to come out of this, keep an eye on RWU for further developments.
Try of the match: There’s no hooker in the world right now other than Dane Coles who could do something like this in a test match. Coles has gone from strength to strength this season and will be a permanent fixture in the All Blacks with this sort of skill.
Man of the match: He’s been injured this season, had to put up with New Zealand’s rugby’s mentally challenged sector with calls for his retirement and has the weight of the most important job in the country, but Richie McCaw was incredible. His turnovers kept the All Blacks within striking distance to launch their final assault.
Idiot of the match: There was no malice intended and he is a rookie, but Patrick Tuipolotu’s sin-binning came at potentially the worst possible time for the All Blacks. Luckily for him his team mates rallied and kept the damage to a minimum and to be fair to Tuipolotu, he did play very well when he came back on the field.
Moment of the match: Stephen Donald’s heroic effort in the 2011 Rugby World Cup has become so legendary that a TV movie was made about it (you can watch it here). Not to be outdone, Colin Slade managed to condense the 12 month tale of Donald’s fall from grace and redemption into three minutes. First he missed touch to have everyone in New Zealand cursing his name, then covered himself in glory by calmly slotting the winning kick. Slade is a bit of a forgotten man sometimes given the current duel between Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden as Dan Carter’s heir apparent, but he’s actually had an incredibly good season and has carved his name into All Black folklore with this effort.
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