New Zealand wrapped up the 2008 Bledisloe Cup series on Saturday, coming back from 14-6 down to beat Australia 19-14 in Hong Kong.
New Zealand wrapped up the 2008 Bledisloe Cup series 3-1 on Saturday, coming back from 14-6 down to beat Australia 19-14 in Hong Kong.
Australia made the early running, but New Zealand's patience paid off in the second half as their forwards – helped somewhat by some lenience at the breakdown – dominated the ball and starved Australia's dangerous backs of any possession.
This was absolutely no classic. It gave the Honkers faithful a few moments to wow about, but by and large the ball spent too much time up in the air and too little time in the hand.
The fact that the pitch was not really conducive to aggressive scrumming didn't help, certainly not Australia, whose struggles at the set piece were compounded by the rickety and slippery surface, and produced a steady stream of penalties to the All Blacks.
Both sides set their stall out in the first half, with Australia banking on acceleration at every possible moment, and New Zealand opting to hoof anything in their own half into the other half and then follow it up in rigid and watertight defensive fashion. Discipline did win the All Blacks the day in the end – they conceded only one penalty in the first half to Australia's seven – but it was the accuracy of the field positioning by the entire XV that ensured Australia struggled to quicken the game up as they would have liked.
Of course, early in a game acceleration of possession is no problem. Australia scored two excellent first-half tries despite a dearth of possession, but undermined their superior attacking play with a succession of penalties for a myriad of offences. Dan Carter nailed three of them, none particularly easy. Any Australian transgression was punished, while New Zealand gave nothing to punish.
But did they really give nothing? New Zealand have often been described as cheats for certain breakdown tactics, which is a harsh call. You play what you can get away with. But at times in the second half there were so many players diving off their feet into rucks, aiming for thin air, that you could imagine much of the midweek training taking place around the edges of a swimming pool.
At other times, support players would not step over the tackler and tacklee to create the ruck, but stand lateral to the men on the ground, basically, hanging round the side.
It widened the 'gate', but it also looked suspiciously like a tactic to block Australians coming in from the open side. Is block overstating it? I've never seen the positioning that pronounced before, so it had to create some sort of function, and widening the gate would normally be counter-productive. Certainly, wherever the player would stand, he would not be coming in through the gate… it is a moot point whether the ruck was formed or not sometimes, but at others, it clearly was, in which case, the man was either offside or coming in from the side. Potentially both.
Anyway, back to the positive stuff. Drew Mitchell claimed both tries, and his first was a gem. Having pressured Stephen Donald and Hosea Gear off the ball, Australian forwards bashed the ball up six phases on the left, before Matt Giteau took the ball at pace into the 10-12 channel and popped it up expertly for Mitchell on a straight line to crash over under the posts.
Carter reduced the gap to 7-6 with two penalties, but then came Mitchell again, after excellent quick distribution by Luke Burgess gave George Smith enough time to slip away a flat scoring pass in the left-hand corner. Giteau converted with elegance for a 14-6 lead, but Carter quickly replied with his third penalty for a ruck infringement for a 14-9 half-time scoreline.
Graham Henry said at half-time that his team had been 'out-passioned', and the All Blacks certainly came out with more zip in the second half – in all areas of the game, not just the dives into the rucks.
It reaped instant dividends, with a quick handling movement exploiting a six on five overlap for a try from Sitiveni Sivivatu. Carter's radar went on the blink though, and it was tied at 14-14.
Not much happened after that. Australia's pack buckled almost as readily as the playing surface, and attempts to redress the imbalance by driving before the put-in were quickly halted by referee Alan Lewis. The All Blacks were dominant at the ruck, for reasons detailed above, meaning Luke Burgess could not speed the game up as he had done so well in the first half.
It was only a matter of time before the breakthrough came, and it fell to Richie McCaw to deliver the coup de grace, with Sivivatu's lobbed pass a moment of rare magic in an ordinary game. New Zealand shut up shop thereafter disturbingly effectively, which is perhaps the aspect that the home nations should pay most attention to. That and some aggressive rucking.
Man of the match: Luke Burgess stood out for Australia in the early part of the match before the All Blacks cut off his supply of ball, and Sitiveni Sivivatu was the pick of New Zealand's backs. But for an all-round contribution, look no further than Rodney So'oialo's all-chasing, all-harrying, all-tackling display.
Moment of the match: Matt Giteau's swerving run and switch with Drew Mitchell for the opening try capped off a fine minute of high-speed rugby.
Villain of the match: Ali Williams nearly worked himself into this one, but pulled his punch on Stephen Moore in the nick of time. No award.
For New Zealand:
Tries: Sivivatu, McCaw
Pens: Carter 3
Tries: Mitchell 2
Cons: Giteau 2
New Zealand: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Greg Somerville, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Ma'a Nonu, 22 Cory Jane.
Australia: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Stirling Mortlock, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Richard Brown, 7 George Smith, 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 Mark Chisholm, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Phil Waugh, 19 David Pocock, 20 Sam Cordingley, 21 Berrick Barnes, 22 Lachie Turner.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Touch judges: George Clancy (Ireland), Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Television match official: Giulio De Santis (Italy)
Assessor: Bob Francis (New Zealand)
By Danny Stephens