The first two Tests of the Bledisloe Cup are behind us, with New Zealand holding a 1-0 advantage following Sunday’s comprehensive 27-7 victory at Eden Park in Auckland.
That result came seven days after the series opener had finished in a dramatic 16-all draw in Wellington, where the two teams engaged in eight-and-a-half minutes of gripping overtime action.
The series now shifts to Australia and forms part of a revamped Tri Nations tournament following the withdrawal of the Springboks from the Rugby Championship, with the Wallabies hosting the All Blacks in Sydney and Brisbane respectively.
But before we change our focus to the western side of the Tasman Sea, it’s worth recapping the opening two Bledisloe Cup fixtures to see just where the All Blacks and Wallabies are two Tests into their respective Ian Foster- and Dave Rennie-eras.
What is there to like?
New Zealand: Defensively the All Blacks have been very strong, particularly when Australia have threatened the New Zealand line from close quarters. The All Blacks tackled at an 89 percent efficiency in Wellington – when they were asked to make 72 more tackles than the Wallabies – and backed that up on Sunday by completing 86 percent of their 168 tackles at Eden Park. The effort of Richie Mo’unga and Anton Lienert-Brown to deny Marika Koroibete a try was vital in Auckland, just as the breakdown work from Damian McKenzie and Ardie Savea was after surging Wallabies runs that were brought down only metres out in the first and second Tests respectively.
The work of Foster’s side at the breakdown has been generally sound, catching out both ineffective and slow-to-react arriving Wallabies players. New Zealand’s set-piece continues to lay a solid platform as well, though it did not have the same success upsetting Australia’s ball in Auckland as they had seven days’ prior. And after an unusually scratchy effort under the high ball and as a result, on the counterattack, in Wellington, Sunday’s efforts were a return to the devastating All Blacks kick-returns the rugby world has come to expect.
Australia: While a draw and a 20-point loss suggest the Wallabies found the going reasonably tough in New Zealand, the growth in their game under Rennie after just two Tests is obvious. Firstly, the Wallabies’ attacking shape is light years in front of where it was at the World Cup, so too their game management and the understanding that they must be prepared to play without the ball when the situation presents. Nic White’s running game may have been nullified in Auckland but it has taken some of the pressure off the playmaking combination of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua. The ball-carrying from Taniela Tupou, Matt Philip, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, James Slipper and Harry Wilson has also had the Wallabies on the front foot, affording Australia’s backs far more space to work in.
There was also noticeable improvement in Australia’s set-piece on Sunday, hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa seemingly making a significant difference at both the scrum and lineout after coming in for Folau Fainga’a.
What needs improvement?
New Zealand: Looking past the 14-minute, three-try surge on Sunday, it is clear that this is an All Blacks side still adjusting to Foster’s blueprint and how exactly he wants the team to play the game. Certainly Mo’unga has been unable to influence the Tests in a manner you might expect, nor has Aaron Smith really created havoc in his customary fashion, his burrowing try in Auckland aside. Beauden Barrett certainly made an impact on his return in Auckland, but that was more from broken field and on the one occasion he did beat the Wallabies for pace on the outside from a set-play, the All Blacks coughed up possession a short while later.
Foster will also be looking for greater collective impact from his ball-carriers up front, after skipper Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Dane Coles all combined to lead the way in Auckland. Lock Sam Whitelock is a chance to return to the team in Australia, but question marks remain over the impact of Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell and Ofa Tuungafasi, who are all yet to hit the same lofty heights they had in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Handling errors, while not to the scope the Wallabies endured, also hampered the All Blacks continuity in Auckland.
Australia head coach Dave Rennie and captain Michael Hooper discuss the Wallabies’ Bledisloe Cup defeat.
Australia: Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has two key focal points which he is surely already drumming into his troops ahead of the third Test: Defence and ball security. Their work at the tackle, particularly around the cleanout is also still a work-in-progress, though they were significantly better in that department in Auckland despite a slow start when Shannon Frizell was able to win two turnover breakdown penalties.
Before Bledisloe I, Rennie made a point of putting the heat on his side defensively. They responded. In Wellington, the Wallabies missed only 21 tackles for an 85 percent defensive efficiency. They missed double that number in Auckland, conceded four tries and were subsequently well beaten 27-7. Most worryingly for Rennie will be the ease of which some players slipped off tackles; they say defence is as much attitude as it is technique, and countless Wallabies appeared to have little interest in tackling Caleb Clarke in Auckland.
Who has caught the eye?
New Zealand: Caleb Clarke’s Test debut very nearly ended in him finishing as the villain, after he fumbled Reece Hodge’s rebounding penalty kick after the siren in Wellington. But he was able to shake that error off and produce one of the most breath-taking run-on debuts on the international stage in recent memory seven days later. Some cardboard-cutout Wallabies defence aided his performance in Auckland but there is no doubting that Clarke has that rare tackle-shedding ability we seem to only associate with wingers from New Zealand who wear the No. 11 jersey.
Australia: While Clarke was a graduate of New Zealand’s sevens pathway, Australia had been hoping its fine crop of under-20 players could quickly graduate to Test level. And that’s exactly what has happened with Reds No. 8 Harry Wilson, who only made his Super Rugby debut at the start of the year. Wilson was superb in the 16-all draw in Wellington, before he picked himself up from a hospital bed to turn in another hard-working 52-minute effort in Auckland. Wallabies fans should be genuinely excited about what Wilson might do on home soil after a full preparation. Filipo Daugunu was electric in Wellington, but he is one of a number of Wallabies who need to be better defensively if Australia is to reverse the Auckland result in Sydney.
So who is the happier team?
The All Blacks need only one further win to retain the Bledisloe, so naturally they will head across to Australia confident of completing the job. But consider this: How many people actually thought the series would still be live at this point? The Wallabies went from having two out of the three Tests in Australia, to hosting the first two of four, before they finally were forced to play the first two games in New Zealand, after a limited preparation spent partly in quarantine, amid the COVID sporting scramble. That puts a different spin on things, one the Wallabies must embrace when they return to camp on Thursday.
It’s clear the All Blacks have the momentum and do not have to confront the same quarantine issues when they fly to Australia, but anyone who believes Sunday’s performance was as resounding as the scoreline suggests needs to give it another look. The Wallabies have significant improvements to make, no doubt, but they were three inches away from a win in Wellington and well and truly in the game at halftime in Auckland.
The All Blacks will get better, but so too can the Wallabies. This series is alive and kicking, and the third Test, in Sydney, can’t come soon enough.