Back to the drawing board
July 18, 2009
All Black Stephen Donald survived an early battering to win the fly-half battle in Auckland © Getty Images
Australia coach Robbie Deans will not be a happy man. His Wallabies rolled in to Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday with genuine hopes of ending a hoodoo at the ground dating back to 1986, with their opponents an All Blacks side that has endured a catastrophic international season by their usual exemplary standards.
The Wallabies' start would have had the former Crusaders coach in dreamland, Berrick Barnes dummying his way to a try before Matt Giteau opened up a deserved 10-point lead after only nine minutes. Those that called for him to be elevated to the position of All Blacks coach following the 2007 Rugby World Cup were again cursing the decision to let him cross the Tasman.
It wasn't to be however, and his much-vaunted Wallabies side was out-muscled in a contest that always threatened to sort the men from the boys. A 22-16 loss will give no comfort to the visitors, who will have wanted to justify their hype early on in the tournament.
After the disappointment subsides, Deans has several important calls to make. His decision to include six back-row options to counter the threat of Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo was rendered pointless by the precision of the All Blacks at the tackle area. The Wallabies flooded the breakdown yet the home side were content to pick them off as the game wore on. Australia's strength lies with fly-half Giteau and inside-centre Barnes' exemplary control, but they were passengers for a second-half where the supply to them was non-existent.
By comparison, All Blacks fly-half Stephen Donald enjoyed his best game at Test level. Giteau possesses more natural flair, composure and attacking threat but Donald trumped him by simply having the ball for more than a handful of pressurised moments in the second half. Donald, stepping in to the boat-like shoes of Dan Carter, also kicked his goals when the occasion called for it - echoing the actions of Don Clarke on this day 50 years ago.
Deans will be horrified at the lack of quality service to his playmaker, both from the perspective of the breakdown and from scrum-half Luke Burgess. Giteau radiates control but Burgess seems flighty and is prone to a looping delivery that places his outside backs on the back-foot immediately. Outside of Barnes, there may also be a tough call to make in terms of skipper Stirling Mortlock.
Deans is highly unlikely to drop the veteran Mortlock for the Wallabies' next outing against the Springboks in Cape Town on August 8 but he will be concerned at the lack of questions he posed in comparison with his opposite number Conrad Smith. Smith's dart to set up McCaw for the All Blacks' first try showed intelligence and composure that Mortlock failed to deliver with his, granted, limited chances in possession.
Deans will have been pleased by the performance of Adam Ashley-Cooper, at fullback, who broke the All Blacks' line at will in the opening moments. What price Drew Mitchell at fullback, Ashley-Cooper at No.13?
The Wallabies have learned a hard lesson in the realities of Test rugby. Barnes butchered a first-half chance for a 17-3 lead, and the Wallabies never recovered. McCaw grew in stature as the game wore on, his opposite number George Smith toiling against the tide in his 100th Test match.
Smith would have had high hopes at claiming the scalp of McCaw to celebrate his wonderful efforts in becoming the fourth Australian to reach a Test ton, but in reality he was never given a fair chance once the All Blacks' pack seized hold of the game after 20 minutes.
Prop Al Baxter will cut a disenchanted figure after he was refereed out of the game by Craig Joubert, who repeatedly pinged the Waratahs man despite the lack of a suitable bind from All Black Tony Woodcock.
Henry will be a relieved, yet not overjoyed presence in the changing room. His side's lineout creaked in the first-half, last season's most reliable player in Andrew Hore overthrowing his jumper in mistakes that lead to the Wallabies opening 10 points and he will want to see more cut and thrust from his backs on the hard grounds of South Africa next weekend.
The All Blacks were written off in some quarters before this game. Don't believe it for a second.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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