History will record the opening Bledisloe Cup Test in Wellington as a 16-all draw, but the result was actually a massive moral victory for the underdog Australians. No one really gave the Wallabies any chance of upsetting the All Blacks, but they showed enormous character and commitment to challenge the Kiwis on their own turf in a dramatic contest that lasted for 89 minutes.
The result will give long-suffering Wallabies fans hope that their team is finally on the right path, albeit at the beginning of a new journey. New coach Dave Rennie assembled a new-look team, but more importantly he instilled a new attitude into the group. The Wallabies seemed hungrier than the All Blacks. You could see it in the way players dived on loose balls and fought for all those valuable one percenters.
It was not a perfect performance, but to come back from 13-3 down to put themselves in a match-winning position towards the end will give the Wallabies a tremendous psychological boost.
If Test matches were won on statistics, Australia would have won comfortably. They dominated so many areas of the game, including possession (59% to 41), territory (58% to 42), line-breaks (five to three), metres gained (814 to 542) and off-loads (eight to three). All of that, though, is just a potential advantage. The Wallabies conceded 14 penalties to seven, some while they were on the attack. Ill-discipline and a shaky lineout undermined Australia’s great efforts in so many other facets of the game.
While the wet and windy conditions may have been a leveller, the Wallabies’ defence managed to keep the scoreline relatively low, which is almost a prerequisite to beating the All Blacks, who have so many potential points in them.
At first the Wallabies’ focus on attacking the All Blacks out wide appeared to be inviting danger, but the two tries to wingers Marika Koroibete and Filipo Daugunu were both scored in the corners after successfully exploiting the Kiwis’ narrow defensive formation. The mini attacking unit of Daugunu and rookie backrower Harry Wilson looked promising on the right edge, but so much of the Wallabies’ attack broke down because of a lack of combination. That will come with time if this group remains competitive and stays together.
The Wallabies will also need to become accustomed to tactical kicking being a part of their new strategy. While they gained some purchase with high balls in the swirling wind, too many kicks seemed to lack purpose. They also have to learn how to produce a winning play in the clutch – their failure to set-up five-eighth James O’Connor for a match-winning field goal proved costly.
Generally, though, the signs were positive, something for the Wallabies to build on. It was certainly a great way for Rennie, the former two-time Chiefs Super Rugby winning coach, to begin his tenure with the Wallabies. But it should be remembered that Rennie’s predecessor Michael Cheika guided the Wallabies to a win against the All Blacks in his first attempt, but he did not win the Bledisloe Cup in five long years of trying.
The draw in Wellington places this year’s series in an interesting situation. It has effectively turned the Bledisloe Cup into a three-Test series and two of the remaining three games will be played in Australia.
Hopefully, Rennie will stick with most of this team for the second game at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday, a venue where Australia have not won since 1986. It is difficult to see how he could improve the Wallabies too much with different selections, although he might look to tweak the back five to improve the set-pieces and competitiveness at the breakdown.
The Wallabies would be foolish not to anticipate a strong and determined response from the All Blacks, who looked uncharacteristically sloppy in Wellington. The conditions may have had something to do with it, but so did the Wallabies’ aggressive line-speed in defence and sense of urgency.
In many ways it was a very un-All Blacks like performance, especially surrendering the lead the way they did. Maybe the All Blacks simply underestimated the Wallabies, which would be a big political win for administrators seeking respect for the Australian game from their Kiwi counterparts.
Of course, an ardent Kiwi fan might argue the All Blacks should have had the game wrapped up at half-time. If Ardie Savea had not been held up over the line and if Rieko Ioane had grounded the ball properly, they would have led 22-8 at the break, although they got away with one when no one noticed Ioane’s foot touch the line in the lead-up to Jordie Barrett’s try. That is a reminder to the Wallabies of what the All Blacks are capable of when they are on their game.
The Wallabies can be justifiably proud of their effort in Wellington. They not only believed in themselves, but they gave their supporters reason to believe in them, which was vitally important in the current state of the game. Is it the start of a new era or just another false dawn? It is difficult to say after one game, but if you are a Wallabies supporter, you are probably smiling for the first time in a long time – at least for a week.