The Welsh say rugby is a game played in heaven. And for the first 40 minutes of this test match these two teams played enthralling rugby at a frenetic pace to give credence to that adage. After 80 minutes, the All Blacks showed just why they are the premier team in world rugby, beating the Wallabies 30-14 in a comfortable victory at Auckland’s Eden Park. This Tri-Nations – and Bledisloe Cup – review by STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.
The past week many rugby fans were talking up this match as a possible preface to the World Cup final. Those sentiments were muttered mostly by misguided Australian and South African fans thinking Super Rugby is an appropriate gauge for Test match rugby. On Saturday the All Blacks on-field performance was the perfect retort to claims made by the Australian press and past players mouthing off how their crop of players were ready to eclipse the All Blacks. Comparisons between key players, like Pockock vs McCaw and Carter vs Cooper, dominated headlines in the build-up to this encounter. After 80 minutes, the debates over pupil and master would have been emphatically settled in favour of McCaw and Carter.
The first half of the match, which was also the final of the Bledisloe cup, that Antipodean tournament-within-a-tournament, raced by as the both teams showed no intention of playing tight Test rugby. Play was rapid and intense with McCaw sporting a bloodied face as early as the 7th minute. Not being sent to the blood bin was, incidentally, the first of many mistakes perpetrated by South African referee Craig Joubert.
Dan Carter opened the home team’s scoring account with a McCaw-induced penalty after six minutes, for the first of five successful kicks at posts. A clever break from the scrum by scrumhalf Piri Weepu, led to a ruck from which Ma’a Nonu managed to barge through the Wallaby defence to score close to the touchline. Carter, who was in imperious form all night, converted to make the score 10-0 after 10 minutes.
The All Blacks dominated the opening period, very nearly adding two further tries. Only an intercept and poor communication prevented them from adding to the scoreboard. Instead of capitulating, however, the Wallabies regrouped and countered by running the ball back at Graham Henry’s men. At one stage the men in Australian Gold, recycled the ball through 13 phases and came close to scoring through a James O’Connor break and good forward driving play.
By the 25th minute of this duel, the Aussies had managed to win the majority of possession and claim the territorial stakes. But that was where any ascendency ended. Two missed O’Connor penalty attempts ensured the Wallabies would remain scoreless until after half time.
Weepu repaid the faith shown in him by coach Henry and made a mockery of his critics, with another one of his crafty breaks in the 27th min. The break set-up a maul for his forwards to muscle their way close enough to the try-line for Keven Mealamu to squeeze over next to the uprights. Carter converted with a kick that he could make blindfolded, to move the score to 17-0.
In front of 55,000 screaming Auckland fans, the All Blacks had just exhibited the gap between the top two teams in world rugby. Dan Carter also showed Quade Cooper loyalists that more than just fancy footwork is required to claim the title of best flyhalf on the planet. With his imperious kicking on show all evening, Carter backed it up with a sublime defensive display that prevented the Wallabies from scoring tries or gaining field advantage. By engaging in the physical stuff and even a 47th-minute drop goal, Carter turned in a performance as close to perfect that a number 10 could hope to achieve.
It was only Carter’s third drop-goal in Test match rugby and his first for five years. Given the historic importance of drop-goals in World Cups, it may just be something Henry has added to the pivot’s practice routine lately.
With 50 minutes gone, the ABs were 20-0 to the good although they would not have enjoyed the lost possession at lineout time and penalties conceded in the front-row. Springboks take note, these are about the only two frailties the All Blacks have at the moment.
Although the Wallabies looked shell-shocked, early in the second half, a Genia inside pass to put Kurtley Beale into space sparked the long overdue try. Once Beale offloaded to the fleet-footed Digby Ioane, the Red’s winger showed pace and guile to dance around Muliaina to score in the corner. Cooper, taking over from an errant O’Connor converted a difficult kick to bring some hope to the Aussie fans closing the score to 20-7. Those hopes, however, could not have been shorter-lived when another dubious call by Joubert allowed Sivivatu to score from the restart. Obviously, Carter added the extra two points, 27-7.
While Joubert refereed the breakdown and scrums well, he – and his SA assistants running the touchlines – missed several forward passes and the odd skew lineout that left Australian fans with blood boiling and their comeback hopes in ruins. Given the amount of money invested in training and setting up fancy refereeing panels, the standard of adjudication in Test matches of late leaves much to be desired. Hopefully, no crucial matches in this year’s rugby World Cup will be decided by inept refereeing displays.
Cooper again showed his disdain for physical contact, by throwing a wildly speculative pass just meters from his line when under serious attack. A penalty was won from the resulting scrum to allow Carter to add a further three points to his tally and New Zealand were sitting pretty at 30-7 with 13 minutes to go.
Cooper made some sort of amends by engineering the last try of the match for the Wallabies. A long-range pass to captain Rocky Elsom after an attack down the left flank, left only the veteran legs of Brad Thorn between him and the try-line. A challenge that was easily overcome in the 78th minute to put some level of respectability on the score sheet, 30-14, which would be the final score.
For most of the Australian team, this would be a forgetful night bar James Horwill, Digby Ioane and Stephen Moore. If Rocky Elsom’s media efforts are anything to go by, the armband of captaincy may be better suited on the arm of Horwill who never seemed to stop trying in a losing battle.
As the most experienced, and oldest, All Black team ever selected, these players gave Henry a lot of answers to the selection quandary that usually faces New Zealand in the build-up to a world cup. He will now have the conviction to discard the age arguments from his selection criteria and pin his hopes of success on the players that started this Test.
While the forwards held up well, we learnt today that Australia are only pretenders to the crown, and do not have enough artillery to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand. Pity for them the World Cup is being played there and even worse that all the business-end matches scheduled will be played at fortress Eden Park.
We now look forward to seeing what kind of challenge the Springbok team, with many returning stars, can offer up in the coming weeks on home grounds. Despondent, deflated and having to brave Quantas flights to Durban, the Wallabies will not be looking forward to facing the new old-look Bok team that will be hoping to offer the mute button to their armchair critics. DM
Scorers for New Zealand
Tries: Nonu, Mealamu, Sivivatu
Conversions: Carter (3)
Penalties: Carter (2)
Scorers for Australia
Tries: Ioane, Elsom
Conversions: Cooper (2)
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
All Blacks: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Ali Williams, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.?Subs: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
Wallabies: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 James O’Connor, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom (c), 5 James Horwill, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu.?Subs: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Pekahou Cowan, 18 Dan Vickerman, 19 Scott Higginbotham, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Anthony Faingaa, 22 Lachie Turner
Photo: Richie McCaw, captain of New Zealand’s All Blacks, is tackled by James Horwill (obscured) of Australia’s Wallabies, watched by (L-R) Rocky Elsom, Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Kurtley Beale during their Tri-Nations Bledisloe Cup rugby match at Eden Park in Auckland August 6, 2011. REUTERS/Nigel Marple
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas