Game I of the Bledisloe Cup is in the books and yet again it is the All Blacks with one hand on the trophy.
After last week’s 33-25 victory in Auckland, New Zealand return to Eden Park knowing a win will secure the trophy for a 19th straight year.
Can the Wallabies present a sterner challenge this week? They’ll need to in order to push the Bledisloe to a decider in Perth in a fortnight’s time, while both sides will want to make a strong start to the Rugby Championship, to which Saturday night’s game also pertains.
Read on as we isolate five key talking points for the Eden Park clash.
A LACKLUSTRE FINISH MEANS PUT THE ALL BLACKS ON NOTICE
After a stirring showing in Bledisloe I last year, a match that finished 16-16, the Wallabies headed to Eden Park quietly confident they had what it took to win in Auckland. At halftime, down only 10-7, that still appeared to be the case.
Enter Caleb Clarke. On the back of some wayward Wallabies kicking, the All Blacks winger ripped the Australian defence apart and New Zealand quickly ran in three tries to take a stranglehold on a contest they would win 27-7. It was an impressive response from an All Blacks team that had been sub-par in Wellington a week earlier.
The script is somewhat the same this time around, although the All Blacks mixed the good and bad in the same match last week, culminating in a final 15-minute period the Wallabies dominated by running in three tries of their own to add some respectability to a scoreline that at the 60-minute mark had read 33-8.
“We’ve gone with continuity of performance to put pressure on this group to respond and give us more of a complete performance,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said Thursday in announcing his team.
“We’ve done some good things but also we’ve learned a bit through it. I’m a believer in that and think it’s the right thing for this team right now.”
The All Blacks have made only two changes to their starting side, both forced as the result of a minor injury to centre Anton Lienert-Brown. As such, Rieko Ioane has shifted to outside centre, with Sevu Reece moving across to the left wing to accommodate the inclusion of Will Jordan.
In sticking solid with his run-on team otherwise, Foster expects some of the combinations that struggled early last week to hum from the outset this time around.
“We need growth and the best way to get growth at this stage is to keep developing the combinations,” he said. “There were a lot of lessons from last week, and whilst a lot has been said about the things that didn’t go well, there were a lot of things that did go well and we’ve got to enhance those opportunities again.”
The Wallabies have opted against similar continuity of selection, instead deciding on the experience of Matt To’omua in the backs and the hardened edge of Lachie Swinton up front. Lock Matt Philip has also been promoted.
Coincidentally, it was To’omua’s departure in Auckland last year that saw the Wallabies’ lose their way.
The All Blacks were able to blow away the Wallabies with a blistering 14-minute spell in that game, which was largely the case last week, too. The All Blacks are still a work in progress under Foster, hence the coach’s demand that they rise to the occasion this week.
They’ve clearly got improvement in them but so, too, do the Wallabies. The big question for Australia is: how much?
WALLABIES’ LINEOUT WAS BAD, BUT THEY WANT THE ALL BLACKS POLICED TOO
Australia had the perfect opportunity to make a flying start in Auckland last week.
They received multiple early penalties from referee Paul Williams, but blew the chance to establish field position and possession while running into the wind because they couldn’t win their lineouts.
Under pressure from Brodie Retallick, Wallabies lock Darcy Swain struggled to get a clean jump at the ball while hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa also failed to nail his targets.
However, Rennie on Thursday echoed the sentiments of Wallabies defensive coach Matt Taylor from 24 hours earlier that the All Blacks had encroached on the gap that is meant to separate the two teams at a lineout.
“The lineout was excellent against France,” Rennie said Thursday. “What we’ll demand is a little bit of space between the two lineouts and we’ve got confidence that we can get that [lineout] going…after the first three or four lineouts, it was pretty sharp. And it has to be, you can’t give up soft possession to the All Blacks.
“They penalised the first one and then forgot about it. They were pretty clear pictures, which [referee] Paul Williams agreed with. So I’m assuming it’ll be policed better this week.”
The “policing” responsibility lies with Kiwi Brendon Pickerill this week.
It’s true the Wallabies found some consistency at the lineout as the match progressed last Saturday, but their early failings stopped any chance of the Australians asserting early momentum.
That simply has to change if they are offered similar opportunities on Saturday.
LOLESIO’S FIRST SHOT AT GOAL WILL BE VITAL
It’s the life of a goal-kicker that with all the adulation that comes with slotting a match-winning conversion or penalty, you have to be prepared to bear the responsibility of defeat — no matter the match storyline — when you leave points out on the field that would have otherwise led to a win, mathematically at least.
Noah Lolesio had a horror night from the kicking tee last week, there is no hiding from that. And, to his credit, there was the Wallabies No. 10 front and centre on Australian television on Sunday morning putting his hand up with the acknowledgement that “I couldn’t kick to save myself”.
Lolesio is just 21 and very much at the start of his Test career, a journey that saw him miss only one attempt at goal across the entirety of the French series. He hasn’t become a poor kicker on the misdirection of one night alone.
That being said, his first shot at goal will be vital this week. Lolesio’s first two misses in Bledisloe I were to the right of the Eden Park uprights, while a long-range miss to start the second stanza was pulled to the right.
Success at Eden Park from the outset is vital, both for Lolesio’s confidence and for righting what continues to be an ongoing worry for the Wallabies: Their slow starts.
After conceding the early advantage in all three Tests against France, the Wallabies gave up an early 0-9 lead last week, too.
RED CARD WON’T BE TERMINAL IN THE RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
As reported last week, the 50/22 kick, goal-line dropout, one-player latch and protection of a breakdown jackler’s legs, law trials are in place around the world for the next 12 months.
But SANZAAR has also successfully lobbied to have the red-card replacement law trial, which was in play for both Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, included for the Rugby Championship as well.
Both Australia and New Zealand pushed for the red-card replacement trial — where players who are sent off can be replaced after 20 minutes — to be included along with the other changes, but World Rugby’s law review committee opted against applying it globally after resistance from northern hemisphere officials.
Certainly, the issue was thrust back into the spotlight when Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete was red-carded after just five minutes in the third Test against France, leaving Australia with 14 for almost the entirety of the Suncorp Stadium encounter.
Two nights later, at a SANZAAR judiciary hearing, Koroibete’s high tackle was deemed to have not met the red-card threshold and he received no further suspension. He also had the offence stripped from his record.
The red-card replacement trial creates a situation where referee howlers — or at least 50/50 calls on foul play — won’t completely change the course of a match’s outcome, even though the Wallabies were able to fight on and claim a 33-30 victory against France in Brisbane.
Well done, SANZAAR
JORDAN VS. KOROIBETE IS A BACKLINE BEAUTY
It certainly has been a rollercoaster few weeks for Koroibete.
After being sent off and then handed no further suspension for his high tackle in Brisbane, Koroibete’s long rumoured move to Japan was finally confirmed. He was then suspended from Bledisloe I, along with Isi Naisarani and Pone Fa’amausili, for drinking back in their hotel room beyond the agreed team curfew.
But the Fijian flyer is back in the No. 11 jersey this week and set for battle with Will Jordan, the Crusaders winger who was unavailable last week because of injury.
This is a showdown of contrasting styles.
While Koroibete’s game is built on raw power, speed and physicality, Jordan beats defenders through guile, footwork and a sharp turn of foot himself.
While Koroibete is happy running straight into a tackler, Jordan has an innate ability to drift between defenders and slip into the backfield; he is brilliant at capitalising on any space afforded to him.
But you can bet that Koroibete will be desperate to atone for his off-field misdemeanor. He may be a man of few words, but the weight his surging runs or big hits carry with this Wallabies team should not be overlooked.