Australia come away from Dunedin with plenty of positives, despite defeat giving New Zealand a three zip margin of victory in the Bledisloe Cup. The All Blacks, reigning world champions, are unbeaten this season and seemingly on a different level to the rest of the rugby world at the moment. While some commentators have made mention of the loss for this game of captain Richie McCaw and best-player-on-the-planet in the minds of many Dan Carter, it is also fair to say that Australia were shorn of a few key players. David Pocock, Digby Ioane and Scott Higginbotham would be in most people’s starting fifteen but have been out injured all year; recent starters Christian Leali’ifano, Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Joe Tomane were all unavailable for one reason or another.
The stand-out statistic from which Australian rugby followers should take initial solace is the scoreline – 33 points is the highest tally the Wallabies have ever racked up on New Zealand soil. The eventual eight point margin indicates a close battle, and Australia were in the game for a long time, notwithstanding their late try put a gloss on the deficit when the race was already run. Although they only led once, Quade Cooper’s first penalty was the opening score of the match, they hit back every time the All Blacks looked like they were getting a buffer on the scoreboard. The home side’s victory was only confirmed with their fourth try scored midway through the second half. It was still game-on when Adam Ashley-Cooper crossed just before half time, Cooper’s conversion reducing the home team’s interval lead to 11 points; and again when Matt Toomua finished off a 70 metre break by the impressive youngster Tevita Kuridrani, to bring the Wallabies to within one converted try with half an hour left.
Cooper had his best game at fly half for a long time, blocking out the vitriol which has been raining down on him from New Zealand stands ever since his run-in with McCaw in 2011 – the All Blacks captain has repeatedly said it is water under the bridge, but his fans are have not been nearly so forgiving. Despite the attempts to put him off Cooper was perfect with the boot, adding three penalties and a drop goal to successful conversions of all three tries the Wallabies scored. His nine / ten partnership with Will Genia stepped up another notch after Rosario – this key position dynamic is fundamental to the team’s attack, and the nearer they get to the form they displayed when winning the Super 15 championship together two years ago the better for the Wallabies.
At the other end of the experience scale the new centre pairing of Toomua and Kuridrani was a big bonus for McKenzie. They brought an energy and a fearlessness to their work that belied their status as newcomers to international rugby, and tackled themselves to a standstill when their storied opponents attacked. Kuridrani is driven by the wish to make enough caps – the main income for players new to, or on the fringe of, the squad comes from international appearance fees – to buy his mum a house: the family had only a couple of hours to pack a few essentials and flee as floods closed in on their home in the January 2011 Queensland inundation. The water ultimately reached the roof of the two storey home. The backline also included Peter Betham, who was clearly emotional when singing the national anthem for the first time as a Wallaby. The Waratahs winger was not overawed on his debut, despite only learning he would be playing 48 hours before kick-off.
Ewen McKenzie’s focus now shifts from the bottom of one hemisphere – Dunedin is international rugby’s most southerly outpost – to the other. The competitive effort by his forwards in their last two games will encourage him as they head north to take on the scrum-obsessed Europeans in November. The forward pack for the trip to Britain, Ireland and Italy will be strengthened by the return from niggles of the recently impressive flanker Scott Fardy and barnstorming hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau. McKenzie knows how important the set piece will be when they start the tour against the old enemy at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people on the 2nd November, at least he and his players will travel emboldened by their performances in Argentina and New Zealand this month.