One of the most thrilling Bledisloe Cup encounters on record finished in a 16-all draw on Sunday evening in Wellington after nearly nine minutes of overtime.
The gripping post-siren action saw both teams trying to snatch victory, each having genuine chances to do so. It also resulted in a swathe of criticism of the officials in the press and on social media.
Read on as we review the “bonus” rugby, an apt eventuality after rugby fans had been starved of Test-match action for more than seven months.
80.20: Referee Paul Williams pings Jack Goodhue for not rolling away at the breakdown, giving Australia a penalty advantage to try their luck down the short side through replacement Jake Gordon. But the play breaks down only two phases later and Williams retreats to the mark; replacement winger Reece Hodge calmly walks over and declares himself the man to take the shot from 54 metres out and about 20 in from touch.
Analysis: Williams decision may have been a little tough on Goodhue, but the referee was right on the spot and must have seen a flailing arm still in connection with the ball, slowing Australia’s recycle down as a result. From the television angle provided, Goodhue looked to have worked his way to the side as required, but it was clearly either not quick enough for Williams’ liking or the centre was still too close to the ball.
82.21: Reece Hodge thumps his right boot behind the ball and it sails towards the uprights, but in its closing metres it drifts away and cannons into the right upright, rebounding back into the field of play. Debutant Caleb Clarke, who is only a few minutes on the field, fails to grasp the ball as it slides under his stomach, the Wallabies regain possession through the chasing Marika Koroibete who then does well to pinch a further three metres and get the Wallabies well and truly on the front foot.
Analysis: So close, yet so far. Hodge’s penalty hit so far up the right-hand post that it might have sailed over from 70 metres. But the key play in this sequence was All Blacks replacement TJ Perenara’s split-second decision to not grab the loose ball as he retreats from an offside position after Clarke’s knock-on. Perenara actually topples over Clarke in the end, before Koriobete beats a diving Sam Whitelock to the ball.
83. 03: After five frantic phases where the Wallabies shift left and then right, James O’Connor is tackled right out in front of the sticks. The ball is placed, then dribbles towards the edge of the ruck, which attracts the gaze of All Blacks replacement Tupou Vaa’i who then snatches the ball, only to see it quickly scragged back by Koroibete.
Analysis: In how many different forms could that have been a penalty? Three. Vaa’i first enters the ruck in the side; the lock then goes off his feet and finally he plays the ball with his hands in the ruck. Positioned on the other side of the breakdown, referee Williams is unsighted to the infringements so he throws a quick look over to assistant referee Angus Gardner. Williams apparently receives no instruction from Gardner and the play is allowed to continue, before the All Blacks complete a turnover through Ardie Savea two phases later.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie would later lament his side’s failure to setup for the drop-goal – something he says they had practiced during the week – and on review O’Connor looked to be setting himself for such a play before Gordon had taken a wraparound pass from Alan Alaalatoa and then offloaded to his fly half.
83.45: Following a powerful surge from Caleb Clarke down the left touchline, Hoskins Sotutu is brought down in a tackle by O’Connor. But the Wallabies fly-half is caught on the wrong side of the ruck for a fraction too long and Williams awards the All Blacks a penalty.
Analysis: Williams was certainly consistent as the infringement was the same one that afforded Hodge the chance to win it for the Wallabies only three minutes earlier.
84.37-88.37: Paul Williams blows for fulltime after an exhilarating four straight minutes of action where the ball is turned over seven times before O’Connor kicks it into touch. An overthrown lineout; two knock-ons; two clear breakdown turnovers and Richie Mo’unga’s clean strip of Koroibete proceed the final breakdown where the Wallabies winger pounces on what looks to be a loose ball at the back of the All Blacks’ ruck.
Analysis: Crazy. Just an utterly crazy finish to a game of rugby. It is hard to critique Williams’ officiating too harshly during the period given the intense nature of the contest, though former Wallaby lock Justin Harrison’s description on Fox Sports that the game descended into “prison rules” wasn’t too wide of the mark. If there are two small calls to question it is first Mo’unga’s strip of Koroibete with Williams only declaring “advantage over” once Mo’unga had taken possession and then offloaded to skipper Sam Cane. Then, for Koroibete’s turnover, the All Blacks could well have had cause to claim a penalty on the grounds of offside and whether or not the ball had in fact dribbled out of the ruck before Cane got his foot back behind it.
Where was the All Blacks’ plan for a drop goal? Perhaps caught up in how close they were to the line – TJ Perenara was just after the 88-minute mark tackle, a metre out under the crossbar – New Zealand may well have felt they had the momentum to win it with a try. A few moments prior to Perenara’s run, Jordie Barrett looks like he might be starting to drop back into the pocket but the winger instead directs some forward runners into position and then slides further out himself.
Both sides had chances to win it and probably each had legitimate cause for a penalty from Williams, with Vai’i certainly fortunate not to have finished as the villain on his Test debut. But this was a closing sequence – the final four minutes in particular – that will live long in the memory. And you can guarantee there will be further drop-goal training in both camps this week.