Wallabies' House of Horrors
November 2, 2009
Rocky Elsom lost on his debut as Wallabies skipper © Getty Images
Not even on Halloween could the supernatural give the Wallabies a much-needed win. The folklore of October 31 again lived up to its billing of being a night of horror, where gold was no match for black.
The Wallabies' nightmare run against the All Blacks now stands at seven defeats on the bounce, only the third time since 1903 this streak has occurred. Those clever historians among you will know the worst run is nine consecutive defeats between 1936-47.
The curious element of this defeat is it was a match without a definitive turning point or shift in momentum. As opposed to Auckland earlier in the year where Berrick Barnes' decision to not pass to Stirling Mortlock for a certain try cost the Wallabies the opening Bledisloe, this was more of a "slow-burn" defeat where the All Blacks did enough to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Like Hong Kong the year before, the Wallabies led at half-time only to lose their dominance in the second-half. As also in Hong Kong, the referee did the Wallabies few favours. Mark Lawrence earned the ire of Robbie Deans by not sending more All Blacks to the sin-bin for foul play. Given Peter Hynes' try came while Sitiveni Sivivatu was sitting out for ten minutes, it's obvious that having the extra man would have assisted the Wallabies' cause.
However, as much as it is convenient, Lawrence was not responsible for this defeat. Put simply, you cannot concede 30-plus points and expect to win Test matches, especially against New Zealand. Giving Dan Carter six penalties within range is certainly not part of the "How to Beat the All Blacks" manual either.
Not to change the Kiwis, they played near error-free rugby and took their chances when they came. The speed of the ball movement and support play of their first try, in particular, even had the Wallabies' fans applauding.
The Wallabies on the other hand made their errors at all the wrong times. The line-out struggled to provide a platform for attack and even the statisticians had a tough time counting the ruck and maul turnovers. Most disappointing was the catastrophic error in midfield by Ryan Cross to allow Conrad Smith in for the match winning score.
The mistake would have been galling for Deans, given Cross was the beneficiary of Barnes' absence through injury. The loss of one of only two backline generals cannot be understated. Apart from Barnes' on-field composure, he is perhaps the best defender the Wallabies have and Deans must be hoping that the vice-captain's injury woes end soon. So where does this leave the Wallabies ahead of the Grand Slam leg of the tour?
Well there are some positives to be pulled from this latest wreckage. Not least that we actually scored a try against the All Blacks this time, ending a barren run of four and half hours. More importantly, the passion and pride sorely missing in Wellington returned in Tokyo and I doubt Deans would have been too upset either with the scuffles and 'argy-bargy' that broke out on occasion. At least it showed him the players care and want to play for the jersey.
Individually there were some bright spots. Digby Ioane's directness gave the backline a much needed boost, while Will Genia's line breaks provided another dimension to the Wallabies' attack and will see Luke Burgess cool his heels on the bench for a while yet. Wycliff Palu and David Pocock were effective at the breakdown and the long-term future of where George Smith now fits into the plan will be an interesting sub-plot on this tour. Rocky Elsom led from the front in his captain's debut and his experience in the northern hemisphere will be invaluable over the coming weeks.
For the first time in months the Wallabies can now enter a match knowing they have a psychological edge over their opponent - England. The tourists performed well at Twickenham last time out and should be good enough to win again. The match against Ireland will make or break the Grand Slam attempt. The Wallabies are renowned for not being able to back up one good performance with another and the Test in Dublin will be of the litmus variety for their World Cup ambitions, now less than two years away.
Where Stirling Mortlock fits in the overall scheme is not yet clear either. One suspects that there are now doubts within the Wallabies camp that he can make it to the RWC given his frequent injuries. However, in a squad short on leaders, Mortlock's talismanic nature is still feared by the opposition as much as his hard, straight running has been missed by the Wallabies this season.
With the black night in Tokyo behind them and a potentially iconic tour ahead the Wallabies still have everything to play for, but let's hope the tricks are now over so we can enjoy the treats.
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