The Wallabies must overcome 22 years of history by beating the All Blacks twice on Australian soil in a single series to reclaim the Bledisloe Cup.
Memories of last week’s highly encouraging 16-all draw with the All Blacks in the first Test in Wellington were erased by a 27-7 second Test loss at that old graveyard Eden Park in Auckland. But the Wallabies can still bring back the Bledisloe for the first time in 18 years by winning the next two Tests to be staged in Sydney on Saturday week and Brisbane on November 7.
Since the advent of the professional era in 1996 – and considering many of the early series were two-Test affairs – only six Bledisloe Cup series have involved two Tests in Australia. The only teams to have won both were the All Blacks in 2010 and Rod Macqueen’s “Golden Wallabies” in 1998.
Dave Rennie’s iteration are a long way off that high standard and, after cautious gloating in the wake of the draw, there must now be a realisation that Australia’s journey back will be arduous.
Sunday’s loss was their 20th straight defeat to the All Blacks at Eden Park, a hoodoo ground at which they have not won since 1986. Then there was the painful pattern of Kiwi retribution after an upset. To be sure, the All Blacks’ four-tries-to-one win was decisive.
It was not, however, disastrous. Wallabies teams of the past were quicker to capitulate, conceding 30, 40 or even 50 points. Outclassed but not humiliated – even if the performance was fairly ordinary.
For the Wallabies to record a first 2020 series win in Sydney, they must improve in three key, interconnected areas: ball security in contact, accuracy in tactical kicking and making tackles.
In the first half of a fast and intense contest, the Wallabies dominated structured play while their counterparts ruled broken play. The visitors dominated possession and territory early on; the hosts shut down halfback Nic White’s running game. Australia’s play broke down too often when players lost the ball in contact or were pressured into making errors, a result of the All Blacks’ increased physicality following their Wellington near-hiccup.
The Wallabies are clearly trying to incorporate tactical kicking into their game plan and unlearn the strictly ball-in-hand rugby played under former coach Michael Cheika.
But when your opponents’ back three boasts the likes of Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and sensational find Caleb Clarke, you either kick precisely or do not kick at all.
Turning the ball over at the tackle contest and kicking aimlessly is an invitation to run riot, which was exactly what the All Blacks did, and Australia missed three times as many tackles in Auckland as they did in Wellington. It was all too familiar. Still, persistence refused to wane and they trailed the All Blacks just 10-7 at halftime, scoring one try apiece.
Where the Wallabies competed for 88 and a half minutes in Wellington, there was in Auckland an 11-minute period early in the second half during which they conceded 17 unanswered points via three tries to Jordie Barrett, No.8 Ardie Savea and openside flanker and captain Sam Cane.
At 27-7 in the 54th minute, the game was almost as good as over. And yet, in the preceding 53, Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete was held up over the line and hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa had a try disallowed for a double movement. Had the All Blacks led only 27-21 with 26 minutes to go, this game might have seen a more interesting finish, even if the result was the same.
As it was, the New Zealand resembled a boxer well ahead on points but lacking the knockout blow; their victims no real chance of winning but refusing to be totally embarrassed. The All Blacks will be disappointed to have not scored at least one more try to put an exclamation mark on the win. Conversely, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper admitted the loss “hit the confidence a bit”.
Rennie’s biggest job is to ensure confidence is not eroded. He made four changes after the draw. What does he do after a 20-point loss? This is not a time to panic, but to build.
Thirty Bledisloe Cup Tests and one World Cup game have been played between these teams in Australian in the professional era. The All Blacks have won 16, the Wallabies 13. There were two draws. If even a shred of self-doubt from this defeat seeps into the next Test in Sydney, there will be little hope of repeating that long-gone history of 1998.