All White on the night as Wallabies dismantle All Blacks in Perth

Photo: Karen Watson

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Hands up who saw this one coming? C’mon be honest… After a year where Australian rugby’s headlines have revolved around another lacklustre effort in Super Rugby, the ongoing Israel Folau saga, and the diminishing lack of funds available in the sport, the Wallabies put a smile back on everyone’s faces on Saturday night with a resounding, and record-breaking, 47-26 victory over the All Blacks in front of over 60,000 in Perth.

While outscoring their opponent’s by six tries to four, they racked up the highest points tally by any Australian side ever against their arch-rivals. Ever.

They were helped in no small way by the red card shown to Scott Barrett just before half-time, after the New Zealand lock led with his shoulder into the head of Aussie captain Michael Hooper at a ruck. But long before the decision that ultimately exaggerated the final outcome of the game, the Wallabies had already shown a renewed vision in attack, a brutal physicality and improved offloading game up front, and far smarter game management than had been on display in recent Bledisloe meetings.

By contrast the All Blacks were ill-disciplined and sloppy by their lofty standards, conceding seven penalties and missing 18 tackles in the first half alone, whilst enjoying just 38% possession. Despite fighting hard with a man down, this was definitely a night to forget for the reigning two-time world champions.

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The signs were encouraging from the off, when an early dart through the line from Nic White inside his 22 showed his intent and brought a penalty. That was followed by a lineout hold, and a nice wraparound play that ended with a decent punt upfield from Marika Koroibete, and a kick-chase that forced another lineout in attacking territory. The Wallabies were seemingly ‘on it’.

A snipe from Christian Leali’ifano got them on the front-foot again in the 5th minute, the flyhalf breaking through with James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale on either side, and possibly taking the wrong option in feeding the returning centre, who was starting his first test since 2013. But a breakdown penalty gave Leali’ifano a first shot at the posts, and he didn’t waste it.

Bledisloe Cup 2019

Samu Kerevi swats aside Beauden Barrett – Photo: Karen Watson

They were further in front a few minutes later, as the All Blacks lost their concentration and defensive shape, and were duly punished. There didn’t appear to be much on when the ball went down the line with a host of black jerseys in position. But when Anton Lienert-Brown stepped out and created a huge hole, O’Connor stepped into it and held off Jack Goodhue before popping up a lovely one-handed offload for Reece Hodge to run half the field with no-one home.

Leali’ifano added the extras and the Wallabies were up by 10. But just as the majority of a buoyant Optus Stadium crowd were revelling in the point-a-minute start from their favourites, New Zealand conjured up a response – and instant redemption for Lienert-Brown in the process.

A grubber through from Goodhue led to skipper’s Hooper and Kieran Read taking each other out in pursuit of the ball, duly followed by Nic White and Aaron Smith doing exactly the same. And when the bouncing pill finally sat up behind the posts begging for someone to make good use of it, it was the kiwi centre who got there first to gleefully dot down and give Richie Mo’unga a simple conversion.

They were in again shortly after, punishing a turnover when Lukhan Salakaia-Loto spilt a pass in contact and Beauden Barrett targeted the short side for Dane Coles to escape the attentions of Allan Ala’alatoa. Aaron Smith was in support to race into the 22 before releasing Rieko Ioane for the corner, despite the protestations of Nic White that it was a forward pass.

Such a quick-fire salvo has led to capitulation from Australia in recent clashes between the trans-Tasman rivals. But the Wallabies regrouped well, putting  together multiple phases and stretching the All Black defence by mixing up their modes of attack, and leaving a couple of tries out there when Samu Kerevi and Kurtley Beale were both guilty of holding on with men free out wide.

A penalty for offside allowed Leali’ifano to restore the hosts’ advantage in the 25th minute, as the visitor’s ill discipline continued to be a rare achilles heel. And 10 minutes later, a needless shove on the back of Hooper’s head while he was on the ground from Ardie Savea, drew another penalty that allowed Hodge to kick the Wallabies into prime attacking position in the shadows of half-time. But worse was to come.

Bledisloe Cup 2019

James O’Connor started his first test for Australia since 2013 – Photo: Karen Watson

The ensuing lineout was shifted infield for a succession of pick and drives, and when Hooper went down grimacing in pain after a clean-out from Scott Barrett right in front of referee Jerome Garces, the TMO was called upon to confirm his suspicions that the All Black lock had led with an arm to the head. Probably at any other time before this season, that was a stonewall yellow card only. But under the new protocols in place to protect players from head injuries, Garces had no option but to show red.

To compound matters for New Zealand, Leali’ifano slotted the 3pts to establish a 16-12 lead as the teams went to the sheds. But given they had missed an unprecedented 18 tackles and conceded seven penalties in the opening 40 minutes, they would have taken a mere 4pt deficit. The problem was, they only had 14 men on the field to turn it around in the second 40.

The Wallabies went in for the kill from the restart, 15 patient phases and a barrage of carries from the hard-working forwards almost paying off when Scott Sio surged over the line, only for some desperate work from Coles to hold him up. But the ensuing five-metre scrum gave the hosts a chance to ramp up the pressure with the man advantage, and a few minutes later they got their reward, Rory Arnold juggling the ball over Ben Smith’s head for lock partner Salakaia-Loto to power over near the flag.

The Optus Stadium crowd sniffed blood in the water, and they were off their feet just a couple of minutes later when a confidence-filled Australian side grabbed another through Nic White. There was perhaps no-one more deserving of the score than the impudent no.9, who had harried, harangued, and tormented the All Black line all night. And when Samu Kerevi burst down the left flank to see off Aaron Smith, barrel aside Beauden Barrett, and offload as replacement Ngani Laumape tried to shepherd him into touch, there was White in support to dive home in style.

The visitor’s were struggling to get any significant possession to try and fight back, with flyhalf Richie Mo’unga virtually non-existent as an attacking threat, and the dangerous Ioane equally invisible. But with the game slipping out of sight, the champion team that they are dug deep and found something from somewhere to stay in the contest. Finally putting together a passage of phases, they tweaked and pulled at the green and gold line looking for a hole, and they found it through the lightning-fast feet of Beauden Barrett, the fullback injecting himself into the play at just the right time to side-step Salakaia-Loto and stretch for the chalk.

With a few players visibly tiring from their efforts, Michael Cheika rang the changes with the explosive Taniela Tupou joining the fray alongside Adam Coleman, and the fresh injection soon paid off. Returning to the MO that had served them well thus far, punching it straight up the middle through the forwards, the Wallabies drove their way towards the posts. But it was a surprise to everyone to see that the man scooping up from the back of the ruck to catch the All Blacks napping and find the line for try number four, wasn’t a burly front-rower or bustling loose forward, it was winger Marika Koroibete.

Bledisloe Cup 2019

Adam Coleman came off the bench with plenty of impact – Photo: Karen Watson

He was off in search of another with just under 10 minutes to go, blasting down the flank after a terrific counter attack from Beale inside his own 22 had opened the door. This time his pass inside for Hooper’s run to the line was smothered by a superb saving tackle from Read. But the Aussies were in an unstoppable mood, and having worked themselves back within range, replacements Will Genia and Matt To’omua combined to fire it wide for O’Connor to send Hodge in for his second.

To’omua’s conversion made it 40-19, and incredibly took Australia to their biggest ever tally of points against New Zealand. But before the backslapping could begin, there was still time for a minor wobble, the home side completely switching off from the restart to allow Read to tap back for the onrushing Laumape, who tore a path straight through the Wallaby defence and away to the posts to get his side back within two scores.

They couldn’t could they?

However, any thoughts of late collapse were soon diminished as the Wallabies kicked for home with a final flourish. All the playmakers were involved this time, Genia, To’omua and Beale continually asking questions of a bludgeoned All Black line with help from a bevy of willing runners. And it was the on-song fullback who put the icing on the cake with a couple of minutes remaining, hitting a Genia pass at the cutest of angles to dissect the line and send the green and gold hordes into delirious rapture. 47-26 over the best team in the world. Had that really just happened?

As a shot across the bows of New Zealand dominance, and indeed confidence, the result is a more than welcome statement of intent from Australia. But it would be churlish not to expect a suitably chastened and embarrassed All Blacks to return fire next weekend at fortress Eden Park.

How the Wallabies fare in that particular cauldron having poked the bear with an almighty stick, should give a better indication of whether history will consign this match as a one-off on both sides of the ditch, or as a genuine sign of two teams heading in the opposite direction a month out from the sport’s showpiece event in Japan. Especially if the Bledisloe Cup comes back across the Tasman for the first time since 2002. Dare we dream…

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AUSTRALIA 47 (Reece Hodge 2, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Nic White, Marika Koroibete, Kurtley Beale tries; Christian Leali’ifano 2 cons, 3 pens, Matt To’omua 2 cons) defeated NEW ZEALAND 26 (Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Ngani Laumape tries; Richie Mo’unga 3 cons) at Optus Stadium, Perth. HT 16-12

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