Following a 39-37 victory for New Zealand over Australia in their Rugby Championship clash, here’s our five takeaways from the match in Melbourne.
The top line
What a Test match.
This was a Rugby Championship game of mighty intensity, some brilliance in attack, some horror shows in defence, more cards than a sales convention and one ultimately decided by one of the most atrocious refereeing displays witnessed in recent Test rugby.
In the final analysis, New Zealand’s firepower and running brilliance saw them take the Bledisloe Cup 39-37, as the game descended into farce at the end, with referee Mathieu Raynal letting emotion and pedantry overcome good sense as he overturned a penalty to Australia for time wasting that saw New Zealand crash over to seal the win with the last play of the match.
But we mustn’t let the officiating overshadow the amazing commitment of both teams – massive gainline hits, power running, incredible competition at breakdown, set-piece and in the air. It was an absolute Bledisloe classic, played in a crescendo of noise, smoke and sweat as the Melbourne crowd were treated to carnage, creativity and commitment of the highest order.
There’s an unwritten rule of rugby that a good refereeing performance doesn’t affect the plays of the match. Bluntly, Raynal failed every definition of this view as his interpretation of ruck laws, scrummaging and illegal play was quite shocking at times.
It cost the Wallabies a famous win, when the hapless Frenchman, in the final throes of the match, called a bizarre scrummage as Bernard Foley was about to kick to touch from a penalty. Quite what was going through his head when he made this call is a mystery. It destroyed the result of the match and was a decision based on emotion and lack of rugby empathy over any form of legality or reason.
His day was abysmal – notwithstanding his allowance of Tyrel Lomax’s bind changing or the Will Jordan jackal in 10th minute that saw him go way beyond the ball, touch ground and pull back, the double yellow card incident against the Wallabies in the 36th minute was comedy central.
Let’s roll back to the moment before this that led up to the cards; Raynal gives a penalty to Quinn Tupaea despite Scott Barrett sealing the ruck off and lying over the ball with such deliberation it was astonishing – it was as clear as daylight and unquestionably, a penalty to Australia.
Caleb Clarke’s subsequent run then causes the ruck where Tom Wright and Darcy Swain are both carded, with Swain lucky not to see red for his lower limb hit. The key point here is that Raynal’s poor decision at the ruck cost the Wallabies two yellow cards and also saw Tupaea looking at a long lay-off due to the Swain challenge.
It was an incident that could well have been avoided had Raynal made the correct decision at ruck time, and to compound his errors, there’s a very strong argument that, judged on the ruck clear-out alone, Swain should have left the pitch for good.
There were many more strange calls – the decision not to card for a clear shoulder drop tackle, a palpable forward pass for the Andrew Kellaway try, the Jake Gordon yellow card and many more. In short, it was an atrocious performance from Raynal that had a huge impact on an otherwise fantastic match.
Battle of number 10
At fly-half, Richie Mo’unga and Bernard Foley both produced masterclasses for their respective countries. Mo’unga’s variety, intellect and ability to create space, vary the point of attack and to tease his runners onto kicks and passes that ripped the heart out of the Wallaby midfield defence.
Australia decided to go in without a real recognised openside, playing Pete Samu as a 6.5, and that gave the classy Kiwi pivot a nano-second of time on the ball to create intelligent mayhem in midfield. The resultant space saw Jordan, Clarke and Rieko Ioane run after run down the middle of the park – and to cap it all, in the 52nd minute he scooted over for his own five-pointer to add to his three conversions and two penalties.
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His opposite number Foley also had a memorable game, even if the final memory will be one of frustration. Foley gave Australia territory, pace and focus as he and Gordon ran some fantastic interplays, with Foley often acting as the second receiver around the back of the scrum-half to give Australia width.
The battle was shaded by Mo’unga by dint of the result – it was so close that it was literally the final call by Raynal that defined the winner of the personal battle that turned out to be a classic sub-plot in a theatrical masterpiece.
Despite the walking wounded, Australia have a lot to be proud of. The set-piece battle was one of almost equality, with only the third set-piece (i.e. the aerial battle) being won conclusively by New Zealand, and the Wallabies will be anxious to improve their exit strategy and control of the drop zone around the kick moving forward.
On the plus side, the performances of their back-row, despite unusually not playing an out and out fetcher, will delight them. Rob Valetini put in a massive shift, hitting breakdown after breakdown, jackal after jackal and steal after steal – in short, he was exceptional. Alongside him, Samu’s carrying offset his inability to pressure the 10 channel in defence and he ran 128 metres on the night, including one memorable personal try with great interplay with Marika Koroibete.
But the biggest takeout for the Wallabies is they played with a lot more shape, courtesy of Foley and showed incredible courage to come back from a potential three score deficit to almost sneak a well-deserved win at the end.
New Zealand work-ons
This was one of the most ‘All Black’ like displays we’ve seen from New Zealand in a long time. Their backline worked well together, even given the departure of David Havili after 22 minutes. Their counter attacking was breath-taking at times and the ability they have to switch points of attack at pace and on the hoof was absolutely outstanding.
Like Australia, losing a traditional openside after Sam Cane limped off gave their opposition a lot of room to run into in the 10/12 channel, and with Cane around, they may well have plugged a lot of the holes that appeared in their first phase defence. However, the carrying of Hoskins Sotutu, the streetwiseness of Scott Barrett and the impact of Dalton Papali’i more than offset the absence of their skipper.
Best of all they stayed calm under pressure; sure, there will be massive controversy over the Raynal scrum call at the end, but that is not the fault of New Zealand – they can only react to what is in front of them and it’s credit to their fortitude and calmness that they engineered that position through a brilliant restart that gave them a position with which to apply pressure in the last moments of the game.
It was a big step forward for the All Blacks and one that might just prove to be a turning point in their pivotal season ahead.