The week of back-and-forward and good old-fashioned international rugby politik thinly veiled as player welfare concerns has been tiring and frustrating, but happily, looks like it will reach the conclusion that always looked inevitable.
The Bledisloe Cup is gone for another year, but the third and final game will still be played in Perth, albeit a week later than expected. Which was already a week later than the initial schedule.
The remaining games have been predictably relocated from Sydney, Newcastle, and Canberra respectively, with the Rugby Championship to conclude in Queensland over four consecutive weekends of double-headers, starting on the Gold Coast and moving on to Brisbane, then Townsville, and back to the Gold Coast.
Some careful threading in and around NRL finals – almost certainly to similarly play out in Queensland – was needed, but we got there in the end.
The Wallabies in the meantime have been in Western Australia this whole time, waiting, training, and getting out and around the rugby community in Perth as the local competition heads toward its season finale.
And, you’d hope, doubling down on some remedial defensive work, after the All Blacks cruised to another year of Bledisloe Cup possession on the back of far too many Wallabies mistakes in the back-to-back games at Eden Park in Auckland.
If there’s an enduring image of Australia’s performance this Bledisloe series, it’s the last All Blacks try in the second game in Auckland.
Paying for errors the theme for Wallabies
Wallabies winger Andrew Kellaway has had a fine series, and his three tries have been great reward for a player who has always had an ability to find the line. But this was a moment he’d rather forget.
The Wallabies were attempting to come out of their own territory as the game entered the 83rd minute, with a pass fired to Kellaway, stationed on the Australian 10-metre line in the middle of the field. But he dropped it cold.
Directly in front of him was his Kiwi opposite, Will Jordan, who had already scored earlier in the second half. The ball bounced straight into Jordan’s grasp, and he immediately stepped right to turn Wallabies captain Michael Hooper around and find some space.
With two Australian defenders either side of him, Jordan aimed straight for the same corner he’d found previously, shaping to kick but stepping right again, to turn Reece Hodge around and create yet more space on the outside.
For a moment, he appeared to somehow hold the Wallabies defence up, before getting a pass back to centre David Havili as Hodge brought him to ground.
Havili headed back in-field, straightened into space, and ran for the try line virtually untouched.
It was the second try New Zealand had scored direct from an Australian handling error. Another came from a scrum following another Wallabies mistake.
Throw in two more tries from intercepts – to go with the one in the first game – and there’s five of the All Blacks’ eight tries coming from unforced Australian errors.
In all cases, the Wallabies’ inability to quickly reset a defensive presence created the trouble. Sure, it’s a bit hard to set a defensive line as a guy runs in the opposite direction, ball in hand after an intercept, but all the handling errors had common patterns: ball goes down, first up tackle missed and/or an offload, manipulation and navigation of broken-field space created, try scored.
Of course, this isn’t a new thing; the All Blacks have been the masters of pouncing on mistakes, and not playing any rugby until they suddenly need to.
In both Bledisloe Tests played this year, the Wallabies had bigger possession shares than the All Blacks, carried the ball more, and either made the All Blacks make more tackles, or forced them to kick more.
New Zealand’s game is built around patience. They are happy to let the opposition do all the ball running and dominate possession and even territory, and instead will just wait to pounce on the moment to create broken-field opportunities.
Ending mistakes and setting line the way back for Wallabies
The Wallabies have two ways to combat this. Cutting down on mistakes and reducing turnovers is the goal of every rugby team on the planet at any level, but it’s crucial when facing New Zealand in a Test match.
And defensively, their ability to present a reset defensive line after an error will be the difference between that turnover staying as a single stat on the page, or it becoming five and maybe seven points.
Shutting down the All Blacks’ ability to get an offload away will also cut down these opportunities. Their offload to clean break ratio was significantly better than the Wallabies’ in both Bledisloe games played so far this season.
It’s been fantastic to see the Wallabies out and about in the rugby community in Perth, and there’s no doubt their being visible will help the second ticket re-selling effort for Bledisloe 3.
But hopefully their work to fix these little things that continue to plague their game will be similarly noticeable when they face the All Blacks again in Perth next weekend.