The Wallabies invoked the spirit of a former rugby league great to inflict a stunning 24-22 upset defeat on the All Blacks in Brisbane on Saturday night. The surprising selection of outside back Reece Hodge at five-eighth had all the hallmarks of Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who is a great admirer of Brian “Poppa” Clay, a five-eighth with the St George Dragons during their 11-year premiership-winning run in the 1950s and 1960s.
Like an extra forward, the powerfully-built Clay would make battering charges in attack and ball-and-all crash tackles in defence, inflicting and absorbing physical punishment for the benefit of his outside backs such as the legendary Reg Gasnier. Similarly, Hodge, unusually big for a five-eighth, produced a “Poppa” Clay-like performance against the All Blacks, providing a physical presence in the No 10 channel in both attack and defence to set the platform for the Wallabies’ gameplan.
But it was a piece of attacking kicking artistry, which evoked the skill of Michael Lynagh more than Clay, which opened the scoring for the Wallabies in the second minute and signalled their intent to redeem themselves after their record 43-5 loss in Sydney the previous week. From an attacking line-out Hodge placed a contestable chip-kick into space in between Sevu Reece and Jordie Barrett which bounced up for fullback Tom Banks, who flicked it to winger Tom Wright to score with his first touch of the ball on his Test debut.
It was one of several big moments that defined the Wallabies’ win, including – and perhaps none better than – second-rower Matt Philip’s magnificent line-out steal on the stroke of half-time. In the last five minutes of the first half the All Blacks received five consecutive penalties close to the Wallabies’ line and opted for five-metre lineouts, looking for a try to take the lead into the break. But on the fifth throw Philip leapt up to steal the ball, bringing back memories of Justin Harrison’s epic catch against the British and Irish Lions in 2001.
Reserve prop Taniela Tupou made a huge impact off the bench with his scrummaging and ball-carrying. Tupou scored the match-winning try when he crashed over from short range in the 74th minute, but he had made two blockbusting runs in the lead-up to get the Wallabies over the advantage-line.
In the 79th minute, with the All Blacks desperately searching for a late match-winning play, Marika Koroibete, the best player on the field, made a huge repeat effort in defence, which snuffed out the Kiwis’ last hope. Koroibete put a big hit on replacement All Blacks winger Damian McKenzie, who threw the ball to Jordie Barrett. Koroibete jumped up and barrelled Barrett, who lost the ball in contact, giving the Wallabies a scrum from which replacement five-eighth Noah Lolesio kicked the ball out to end the game.
And then there was the physical aggression provided by rookie blindside flanker Lachie Swinton, who gave the Wallabies’ forward pack a hard edge, although there was always the feeling he might do something he would regret. That came with the high tackle on Sam Whitelock, which led to a red card, but if he can control his aggression, he will have a lot to offer the Wallabies for many years to come.
It was a strangely chaotic game distorted by two red cards and two yellow cards, but Australia adapted better and played smarter, while All Blacks were guilty at times of panicky play.
The Wallabies richly deserved their win, but they need to put the result in perspective or risk repeating the pain and suffering of Bledisloe Cup defeat. After making a lot of changes in the course of the series, coach Dave Rennie may be edging towards his ideal line-up, but no one knows for sure whether it would be good enough to beat a full-strength All Blacks side. The Kiwis rested more than half of their starting line-up, including Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith, Dane Coles, Jack Goodhue and Caleb Clarke, yet they still fielded a formidable team.
Australia entered the game having lost only one of their previous four Tests against the All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium. They won 25-20 in 2011; drew 18-all in 2012 and won 23-18 in 2017. But all of those matches were Bledisloe Cup dead rubbers, although the 2011 win presented the Wallabies with the Tri Nations trophy, which few gave them credit for. On each occasion the Wallabies suffered a heavy defeat the very next time they played the All Blacks – 20-6 in the 2011 World Cup semi-final and 27-19 in the next Bledisloe Test in 2012; 47-29 in 2013 and 38-13 in 2018.
In this year’s four-Test series the Wallabies’ two best performances were the 16-all draw in the first match in Wellington and the 24-22 win in Brisbane in the fourth, but in the decisive middle two Tests they were thrashed 27-7 in Auckland and 43-5 in Sydney. That is a clear and distinct pattern of results that has dominated the trans-Tasman rivalry for the last 18 years, which indicates the Wallabies cannot win the ones that count. Even Donald Trump could not argue with those numbers.
The Wallabies’ win in Brisbane was a great outcome for Australian rugby given the perilous position of the game, but if the kings of dead rubber are to regain the Bledisloe Cup, they will have to be able to perform when everything is on the line.