by Ben Coles
LIMPING INTO this year’s final Bledisloe Cup match, Australia were not given a hope. Take away the quality of Will Genia, James Horwill, David Pocock and James O’Connor from any team and they will struggle.
Patched up and back at Suncorp Stadium, the setting for Super Rugby success for the Reds and Tri-Nations success for Wallabies, Australia did enough to stop New Zealand going for a record-breaking 17th win in a row to come away with a draw. Tries were not the order of the day, with Kurtley Beale, Mike Harris and Dan Carter kicking all the points in an 18-18 draw, but for the Wallabies this was a big result.
Australia were 8/1 to win before the match, record high odds for an Australian win against New Zealand at home. With a fully-fit squad the Wallabies struggle to win against the All Blacks anyway – before Saturday they had only won two out of their last 16 matches against New Zealand. What was different on this occasion was that although New Zealand were slightly off the boil, Australia executed in key areas.
They missed 16 tackles to the All Blacks 18, won 60% of their own lineouts and caused problems for the opposition. More importantly, Australia held onto the ball more by kicking 19 times to the New Zealand’s 26. All throughout The Rugby Championship criticism has been fired Australia’s way for persistently kicking away possession with no beneficial outcome. By holding on to the ball for longer, they denied New Zealand the opportunity to attack from deep.
Keeping the ball away from New Zealand in the air however means taking them on at the breakdown. With Richie McCaw, Liam Messam and Kieran Read all so adept at both legally and illegally causing problems at the ruck, Australia gave up nine penalties in the contact area. Their age-old problems at the scrum saw them only win four out of a possible nine on their own put-in, which when you factor in the lack of Horwill’s grunt in the second row and losing Ben Alexander in week before comes as no surprise.
Despite those problems at the scrum and breakdown, this was Australia’s best performance of the summer. With more ball in hand they broke the gain line more consistently – Tatafu Polota-Nau and Ben Tapuai impressing along with wrecking ball Pat McCabe. That momentum caught the All Blacks out on the back foot and proved that they are beatable.
The result in Brisbane eases the pressure on Robbie Deans ahead of the November Internationals. It also gives Australia some hope, because having gone toe-to-toe with the All Blacks they can now welcome back key stars. Horwill, O’Connor and Genia will not travel but Pocock, Stephen Moore and Berrick Barnes may all return.
Kurtley Beale is performing at fly-half and the Wallabies young stars – Michael Hooper, Tapuai, Harris and Sitaleki Timani – are improving with every game. The depth of their squad will continue to be tested against France, England, Italy and Wales, but they will arrive in the Northern Hemisphere with a new burst of confidence.
Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencoles_