Wellington has been shaken by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, but it could be the All Blacks who rattle the Wallabies there, when the sides meet for the second time in the Rugby Championship this Saturday (Aug 24).
Last Saturday (Aug 17) in Sydney the All Blacks won 47-29, despite the Australian media predicting an Australian victory.
That confidence was based on an expected lift caused by the appointment of new coach Ewen McKenzie.
That expectation was fulfilled, but it was not enough to counter the All Blacks, who were outstanding for most of the match.
The All Blacks, too, had cause for expectation, based on the return to rugby of captain Richie McCaw, who had taken a 7-month break.
Critics expected him to under-perform, due to the pace of Test rugby. Instead, he controlled both his side and the game by leading from the front.
Matching him from the Wallabies was young flanker Michael Hooper, who was outstanding both in defence and attack. Unfortunately, his proficiency at the breakdown failed to inspire his fellow forwards, who didn’t capitalise on the momentum he created.
That was one of the differences between the sides. The All Blacks pounced on every Wallaby mistake, turning defence into attack in a heartbeat.
It was more than the opportunism. In that heartbeat, the whole All Black side realigned itself into an attacking structure—and attacked.
That is hard to do—and harder to counter.
Given that, the Australians were better than the score suggests. For most of the first half they were in the contest, showing signs of the hoped-for new era. But while they countered the All Blacks blow for blow, there was a touch of desperation about their work.
By comparison, the All Blacks were composure personified. Except at the lineout. The All Black hookers, Andrew Hore, who started, and Keven Mealamu, have over 180 Test caps between them, but neither could throw the ball in properly.
Unfortunately for the All Blacks, such problems can linger inexplicably, just as batsmen can lose form in cricket and golfers can get the yips.
Unfortunately for the Wallabies, such problems are often fixable, which means they could loose their greatest advantage in the Wellington re-match.
For some time the Australian media has been calling for new players. Coach Ewen McKenzie picked five debutantes in his squad.
In line with this, he started Matt Toomua at flyhalf. The disciplined Toomua – who has been schooled by Brumbies coach Jake White—started ahead of Quade Cooper, who McKenzie has brought back into the Wallabies.
Toomua’s strength is his conservative, mistake-free approach. Unsurprisingly, he was too conservative in his first starting-match.
Before the game, All Black coach Steve Hansen said his side would contain Toomua. It’s hard to say how much of Toomua’s containment was imposed, and how much was self-imposed. Either way, his performance, though mistake-free, was below Test standard.
Relative new-comer Jesse Mogg—a Brumbies team-mate of Toomua—played poorly. He has won fans with his long-range clearing kicks and his incisive running. But he showed neither in the Test.
Mogg has a frail appearance. Against the All Blacks, that appearance was reflected in his play, which suggests a lack of confidence.
The All Black flyhalf, Aaron Cruden, was called up for the injured Dan Carter, and was man-of-the-match. The young Cruden controlled the game, not through brilliance but, through hard work and discipline.
He will miss the Wellington Test because of injury, as will his back-up Beauden Barrett, which means fourth-seed flyhalf Colin Slade will be called up. Though the fourth-seed, Slade has played 10 Tests and is a world-class flyhalf.
Veteran Wallaby outside-centre Adam Ashley-Cooper made two outstanding mid-field breaks, but he failed to link with his support. By comparison, Cruden made a break, then slipped a grubber kick through the defence, which, but for the bounce of the ball, would have resulted in a try to winger Julian Savea.
Cruden’s kick highlighted another difference between the sides. Code-hopping star Israel Folau is seen as the Wallabies’ saviour, despite achieving little in his first year of rugby.
Folau’s opposing winger, Julian Savea, sped past him as they both pursued the Cruden kick, and he would have scored if the ball hadn’t clipped the corner post.
Folau doesn’t fully understand rugby yet, so he will continue to make poor choices as he learns on the job.
But it was Folau’s wing partner, James O’Connor, who failed on Saturday. Early in the match, he ran off his wing to “help” Ashley-Cooper make a tackle, got caught in no-man’s land, and watched his opponent Ben Smith race away to score unopposed.
Following this elementary error, the All Blacks targeted his wing, further exposing his poor defence. In the end, Smith scored three tries.
Controversially, O’Connor played flyhalf under coach Robbie Deans during the recent Lions series, which was won by the Lions, and which lead to the demise of Deans.
Despite the loss to the All Blacks, Wallaby coach McKenzie and veteran half-back Will Genia are confident they can win in Wellington on Saturday. Both have been around long enough to know that unexpected turnarounds are surprisingly common.
Nature may conspire against the Wallabies. If there are more earthquakes in Wellington, it will spook the Australians. It will spook the All Blacks, too. But they are used to it.
For the All Blacks, the quake will raise memories of the destructive earthquakes in Christchurch two years ago. That will affect the players, particularly those from Christchurch, like McCaw, and the captain during his break, Kieran Read.
Without realising it, both the Wallabies and the All Blacks will provide a welcome distraction for the people of Wellington.
Earthquakes energise people—whether from adrenalin or an unmeasurable natural energy—so I expect that energy will supercharge the Test.
South Africa vs Argentina
In the other match of the Rugby Championship, the South Africa Springboks defeated the Argentina Pumas 73:13 on Sunday Aug 18 in South Africa. This Sunday (Aug 25) the Pumas will host the Springboks.
Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.