All Black magic conjures much-needed win
August 22, 2009
You're coming home with me: All Blacks captain Richie McCaw poses with the Bledisloe Cup in Sydney © Getty Images
At the end of a week that has seen rugby's name dragged through the gutter, New Zealand and Australia produced a spectacular encounter that will go a long way to restoring faith in the sport.
The latest battle in this year's Tri-Nations was a thrilling and pulsating contest, by far the best served up so far in the battle for the southern hemisphere crown, and will see rugby hit the headlines for all the right reasons and lift it out of the 'Bloodgate' mire.
There was no need for fake blood at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney with the commitment and desire of these old rivals and the prospect of a season-wrecking defeat ensuring there was plenty of the real stuff spilled.
The Wallabies will once again be cursing the All Blacks' stubbornness and their own failure to get the job done having put themselves in a position to do so. Australia took a deserved half-time lead thanks to the boot of Matt Giteau but for the third successive time against their Trans-Tasman neighbours they let that advantage slip under the weight of New Zealand pressure.
Credit must go to both sides for putting on a great show of World Cup-level intensity. There was much talk from both camps in the build up to the game about their desire to see a shift away from the kick-orientated approach that some say has blighted this year's Tri-Nations - although their title rivals South Africa would simply point to the table.
But All Blacks coach Graham Henry and his Wallabies counterpart Robbie Deans were good to their word - sending their sides into battle with a refreshing willingness to run the ball. We didn't get a repeat of the 10-try feast that these two sides produced in their meeting on this ground in 2000 thanks to an exemplary and full-blooded defensive display from both teams.
There was a certain amount of inevitability about the result despite the All Blacks' own shortcomings when it came to execution. They were camped inside the Wallabies' half for much of the second half and dominated possession but they were missing a clinical edge - a fact that was hammered home by two disallowed tries and a poor drop goal attempt from fly-half Dan Carter.
The reinstatement of their talismanic No.10 was unsurprisingly a key factor in their return to winning ways after two harsh lessons at the hands of the Springboks. The Wallabies were guilty of giving him an armchair ride in his first international outing of the year and as a result were made to pay.
Referee Jonathan Kaplan underlined his status as arguably the world's best referee with another fine display. His governance of the breakdown helped make the clash the spectacle it was but question marks will be raised about two decisions either side of half-time.
The efforts of All Blacks' scrum-half Jimmy Cowan to snuff out the scoring chance of the Wallabies' Nathan Sharpe just before half-time resulted in a penalty but the blatant nature of his crime and the position on the field should surely have resulted in a trip to the sin-bin.
Instead it was the Wallabies who were reduced to 14-men soon after the break following a rush of blood from Richard Brown. The No.8, who also got to take a breather against the Springboks last time out, upended New Zealand prop Owen Franks before trotting off having left his side in troubled waters once again.
The Wallabies' confidence will have taken another brutal blow with this defeat but their remains enough positives to offer hope of getting back to winning ways when South Africa arrive next week. They still have a mathematical chance of claiming the title but they must improve and expect other results to go their way if they are to upset the odds.
On a positive note, they excelled in defence for much of this game and held their own in the scrum once Deans had pulled the perceived weak link of Al Baxter from his front-row. There was also adventure in attack but they sorely missed the influence of inside-centre Berrick Barnes when concussion ended his game at half-time.
New Zealand's lineout work benefited from some extensive training ground analysis and as a result they were rarely troubled at the set-piece. The return of Carter also brought with it an incisive attacking edge that has been missing from the All Blacks of late. However, despite some eye-catching invention there is still a fair amount of rust to be shaken off by Carter as his backline get used to playing with their masterful fly-half once again. Too many passes were over run or did not find their receiver.
Sadly for the Wallabies, an All Blacks side lacking polish was all that was needed to end their Bledisloe hopes for another year and leave them playing catch-up rugby in the Tri-Nations. Deans is set for another roasting. The big goal is obviously Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand but if his side continues to display an inability to learn from their mistakes he may not find himself in charge come that time.
In contrast there will be relief for Henry. The efforts of his under-fire squad, and in particular the priceless Carter, have ensured that the sizeable Bledisloe Cup silverware will be gathering dust in their trophy cabinet for another year at least - extending a winning sequence dating back to 2003.
But more importantly they remain in the hunt for the Tri-Nations crown and will hope for a favour or two from Australia when they take on the Springboks twice in the coming weeks.