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Advantage All Blacks but plenty of room for improvement

Patrick McKendry

The All Blacks’ bus was late to the Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies at Eden Park due to Auckland’s familiar traffic issues and, metaphorically speaking, the wheels threatened to come off in the final 15 minutes of the game after New Zealand appeared to be travelling in cruise control for the preceding 50.

The major problem was the number of penalties the All Blacks gave up: 18 to the Wallabies’ nine. It meant Paul Williams’ whistle provided a near-constant soundtrack to the 33-25 victory which allowed the All Blacks to put one hand on a trophy they have held for the past 19 years.

And while another test at the All Blacks’ fortress on Saturday moves the odds of them retaining the Bledisloe Cup considerably in their favour, the way the Wallabies finished will pave the way for some direct conversations from head coach Ian Foster to his players.

The All Blacks copped 18 penalties in their 33-25 win over the Wallabies. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

Foster’s side struggled for consistency last year, but the expectations of improvement across the board for the second test should ensure there is little complacency this week. And, as Foster said afterwards, the Wallabies’ finish should boost the confidence of a young but talented team from across the ditch. 

Some of the rationale behind referee Williams’ breakdown decisions weren’t immediately obvious but there was little doubt about where the All Blacks’ transgressed most – the offside line.

From 33-8 up, Foster watched as the Wallabies scored three tries in the final 15 minutes, with fullback Tom Banks scoring a double and replacement hooker Jordan Uelese crashing over from a lineout maul.

A major issue for the Wallabies was the scoreboard pressure they were under once Mo’unga kicked three penalties to put the All Blacks 9-0 up, and it was exacerbated by Noah Lolesio’s goalkicking woes – he kicked only two from seven, which meant 12 points went begging.

When Williams blew his whistle for his 18th penalty against the All Blacks, an offside infringement which led to the lineout directly preceding Uelese’s try, Sky’s cameras and microphones picked up frustrated skipper Sam Whitelock’s message to his side. “For f**k’s sake, take a step back on D [defence],” Whitelock said. 

The All Blacks’ over-eagerness or impatience in this area was odd because their defence for three quarters of the match was excellent, even during the opening 20 minutes which produced more mistakes than they would usually make in two tests (missed tackles by Richie Mo’unga and Codie Taylor in the lead up to Andrew Kellaway’s try apart). 

A major issue for the Wallabies was the scoreboard pressure they were under once Mo’unga kicked three penalties to put the All Blacks 9-0 up, and it was exacerbated by Noah Lolesio’s goalkicking woes – he kicked only two from seven, which meant 12 points went begging.

They were always chasing the game, which may have explained why the All Blacks apparently clocked off for the final 15 minutes, but Whitelock’s end-of-test frustration will be mirrored within the camp because they had a fantastic opportunity to put a big score on the Wallabies, and in doing so strike a mental blow against their trans-Tasman cousins at the beginning of what could be a long and arduous international season for them.

Tom Banks scored two late tries for the Wallabies. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

“The first 15 [minutes] we were probably over-excited I think and we gave them some free swings with our discipline,” Foster said afterwards. “The last 15 were certainly disappointing with the way we stepped off the pace. The middle 50 – delighted with the composure and attitude. At 33-8 we should have done better. But at the end of the day, it’s a Bledisloe Cup series. We put a stake in the ground and we’re one-nil up and looking forward to next week.

“It keeps life pretty interesting for a coach doesn’t it? There’s plenty to work on.

“They’re a good young team and they play with passion,” Foster said of the Wallabies. “They’ll take a lot of confidence with how they finished that game and we’ll take a lot of confidence with the result. I guess both camps will go away and figure things out. They’ve got some good young players but so have we.”

It’s entirely possible that the way the Wallabies finished may help the All Blacks more than them this Saturday, even assuming Lolesio kicks far better than he did in Bledisloe I (and coach Dave Rennie will almost certainly go with him again at No 10).

George Bower is developing into an extremely mobile and skilful prop, something the All Blacks haven’t had in years, and locks Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were busy and bruising.

It will stress the need for far more accuracy which should sharpen the edge of the All Blacks’ ruthlessness. They’re not going to achieve their stated goal of returning to No 1 on the global rankings by continuing to make those sorts of errors, with the world champion Springboks providing a timely reminder about their status over the weekend when closing out the three-test series against the British and Irish Lions.

But besides all of that, there were excellent signs from Foster’s men. George Bower is developing into an extremely mobile and skilful prop, something the All Blacks haven’t had in years, and locks Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were busy and bruising. Loose forwards Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and Ardie Savea were direct and as a trio probably overshadowed their opposites.

Once Aaron Smith settled his nerves on the occasion of his 100th test, his trademark wide passes put first David Havili and then Damian McKenzie over in the left corner, although Havili deserves enormous credit for his split-second moving of the ball into his left hand in the act of diving for the line. Indeed, Havili’s overall performance in what Foster described as his “first big test in the midfield” was extremely encouraging.

Flyhalf Richie Mo’unga was perhaps the All Blacks best on the night. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Mo’unga was the spark for one of the best disallowed tries the All Blacks have scored and in fact was the catalyst for the second-half blitz with his intercept try after halftime. Wings Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece were industrious and relatively error-free. Fullback McKenzie played with confidence on attack, although there may be a question mark around his positioning for Banks’ first try, which he scored after Lolesio’s kick through the defensive line.

There is little doubt that the always committed Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper is the heart of his team and his side’s bench probably provided more impact than the All Blacks’, with front-rowers Uelese and Taniela Tupou prominent in particular. The backline Barretts, Beauden and Jordie, struggled to get into the game in the final 10 minutes, although they were hamstrung by disadvantages in terms of possession and territory. 

With Covid continuing to disrupt around the world, it’s entirely possible that the second Bledisloe Cup test will be the last the All Blacks play in New Zealand this year. The All Blacks will be aware of that and their 35-year winning record against Australia at Eden Park.

Better accuracy to go with their Bledisloe I enthusiasm should ensure it is memorable for what they believe are the right reasons.

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