2018 Rugby Championships

Bledisloe Cup 2nd Leg.

New Zealand vs Australia

Saturday 25th August 2018

Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT, 09:35 SA Time.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

Australia will need to do something special if they want to keep the Bledisloe series alive this weekend when they visit Eden Park. After last weekend’s roll-over and kicking legs in the air, things are not looking all that promising. Add in the Aussie history at Eden Park, and things look positively ominous. It has been 32 years since Australia won a Test at Eden Park. It was on the 6th of September 1986, a very long time ago. As I write this, on the 23rd of August 2018 that would be 11 674 days ago. It will be two more days before the Test kicks off on Saturday, taking that number to 11 676 days….

Think back to 1986.

It was the year of the Chernobyl disaster.

It was also the year of NASA’s Challenger disaster.

1986 saw Mike Tyson knock out Trevor Berbick and become the youngest ever heavyweight world champion, aged 20 years, four months and 22 days – a record that still stands today.

It was the year that the Aussies made their mark with Crocodile Dundee, a movie that led the US box office takings for 9 consecutive weeks. Tom Cruise starred in Top Gun, Aliens frightened us with their slimy extra set of jaws that extended from their mouths. Oliver Stone gave us the hard-hitting Platoon too.

Usain Bolt was born in 1986.

Nelson Mandela, was still in prison, he had another three years to wait before he would be released.

The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in September 1986, the start of 25 seasons of talk show history.

Maradona elevated outright cheating to a biblical level when his famous

“Hand of God”, punched the ball into England’s net during their quarter-final victory at the 1986 football World Cup in Mexico.

Pan Am (remember them?) was still a global airline and their flight, Pan Am Flight 73, from Mumbai bound for New York was hijacked on the ground while stopping over in Karachi, Pakistan. The 17-hour hijacking that ended when the Pakistani Army stormed the plane. 22 passengers were killed and more than 100 were injured.

Ronald Reagan was president of the USA.

Billboard tells us that “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight was the top selling single of the year. In the UK it was “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by the Communards. Personally, I thought that 1986 was a bit of a musical wasteland, although some might argue that Dire Straits “Walk of Life” was not all that bad.

And on September 6, 1986, Australia won a rugby Test at Eden Park, 22-9 to win the Bledisloe Cup.

Since then, across the next 32 years, the Wallabies have taken to the Eden Park field for a Test against the All Blacks 17 more times, and lost all 17 times.

Interesting too, is that the last time the All Blacks lost at Eden Park it was to France, 23-20, on July 3, 1994.

Perhaps the Aussies must take a lesson from the French if they want to have a chance at winning this one?

I am not talking about the French team of 1986, though. I am talking about the French team of 2018.

Those flamboyant Frenchmen recently showed that the All Blacks can be unsettled – even at home.

During long phases of the recent three Test series, the New Zealanders were forced to play a more defensive and the more forward oriented game style than their usual brand of rugby. They were forced to play the game according to France’s dictates, and they did not like it. They looked unsettled when forced to play off the back foot or when scrambling to defend. They did not look particularly vulnerable, but they did look unsettled. If it were not for some timeous and horribly unfair referee interventions, the score-line in all the Tests might have been much closer.

Last week Australia went on the attack from the kick-off and took the game into the All Blacks’ half of the field and kept it there for long stretches. Once again the All Blacks were forced to play a defensive game rather than their more usual attack oriented approach. They even looked a little unsettled for a while, but soon their defensive disciplines tightened and they rode the Wallaby attack. The Aussies were showing that if you took the game to the All Blacks, you could pin them back, and then all it would need was patience. Plenty of patience. Real patience. No team in the world can defend and defend, and then defend again. Eventually the cracks will appear. A lapse in concentration, a slip, a wrong foot, a tackle slipped ever so slightly, or a man caught at the bottom of a ruck. All it needed was patience.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the area where the Aussies went wrong. After five or six phases of retained possession and continual pressure on the All Black defensive array, the Aussies seemed to become frantic, the passes became a bit scrambled, the carrier went on his own lone attack rather than keeping the ball moving from hand to hand. And the inevitable mistakes crept in.

When you make a mistake against the All Blacks, they will counter-attack you, with some serious intent.

Even when the All Blacks counter-attacked, the Aussies were up to it. They produced a massive defensive effort too, getting right into the All Black faces with a well-orchestrated rush defence system. As a result the All Blacks struggled for fluency, making all kinds of tactical errors as well as numerous handling errors and inaccuracies.

Even then there were warning signs.

Any student of the game will know that the All Blacks always have a slow, rusty start to any series or competition, but they will soon shake off that rust and find the right dose of oil for all the gears. If you have not leapt way ahead of them on the scoreboard during that “rusty start” period, you will find yourself dealing with the relentless surge as the All Blacks come into the game.

And so it was.

Despite the sustained pressure and more than enough possession, the Aussies could not penetrate that All Black defensive wall. All they had as reward for 30 minutes of massive pressure was a measly 6 points.

As the Aussies, tiring and just a tiny bit disillusioned when all their efforts had come to nothing,  paused to suck in the oxygen and think to of how to rebuild their efforts, the All Blacks came back into the game, and that was about it.

Much like Napoleon invading Russia and actually taking Moscow, and then being forced to retreat, the tide turned and the Aussies spent the rest of the afternoon on the back foot defending for all they were worth. They had run out of legs during their ferocious first half of attack and defence, while the famous All Black second-half-surge clicked into gear.

The rest is rugby history.

What then of this week?

The Wallabies and their coach Michael Cheika took a shellacking from the Aussie media and fans. There are even vociferous calls for Cheika’s head, despite the fact that the World Cup looms just a short year ahead. This public lashing is perhaps appropriate, perhaps not. The Wallabies have a shallow pool of talent from which to choose their team, and that pool is currently hamstrung by injuries to key players. The Wallabies have to make the best with what resources they have available.

I have no doubt that there will be a Wallaby fightback this weekend. They are a proud bunch, and they do have talent in their squad, despite the lack of depth.

Yes, plenty of work is needed on the Australian scrum and lineout, especially the latter. But history tells us that the Aussies have always had a good lineout, one Test where the wheels came off does not signify a complete implosion of Wallaby lineout skills and strengths. A visible and fixable problem with Adam Coleman’s calling has surely been identified and rectified, as have the issues with their line-up and set-up. We can be fairly certain that the lineouts will not be a complete mess as they were a week ago.

Despite the problems, the lineouts are all easily fixable.

The scrums might be a little more difficult to fix.

Shuffling props around, from the bench to the starting team and vice versa, does not really address the problems. The solution might have been found in the inclusion of Taniela Tupou and the power he brings to the scrum, but he has failed a fitness test and will not be in the match-day squad this week.

We shall have to see whether the week between the two Tests has given the Wallaby forward unit a chance to get their scrum timing and technique fixed.

Problems in the Wallaby back division consisted in the main of inaccuracy and over-complication. These things are fixable.

They do, however, have to contend with the pedestrian ways of Bernard Foley and the focus of the All Black defenders in shutting down the space Kurtley Beale thrives on. Foley allows Beale to make all the game management decisions and merely acts as a link between the scrumhalf and the inside centre. If the Wallaby back division persists with this one-dimensional approach they may still be on a hiding to nothing. Foley needs to take a grip on the game and provide leadership and decision making that supplements the Beale game. A multi-dimensional approach will slow the All Black defence and prevent them from flooding the space around Beale. Beale remains the kingpin, he is an enormously talented and unpredictable player, but he needs space.

The biggest problem facing the Wallabies is that they have lost their main striking weapon with the loss of Israel Folau to injury, and will need to find alternative plays to bring their wings and fullback into the game more regularly. Folau has been the pass-recipient of choice from Beale (and Foley from time to time) in almost every attack, be it off the set-piece or out of broken play. His loss requires a rethink of their primary attacking strategy.

Mostly, the Wallabies require the legs, the fitness, the puff – call it what you will – to get through two halves of a Test match.

Last week they simply ran out of steam at the end of the first half. Some say that their pre-game training ground regime had been too harsh, too demanding, and contributed to their lethargy in the second half in Sydney. Others suggest that they are simply not fit enough. Suffice to say that the evidence of players sucking in great lungs-full of air in the second half suggest that it is a fitness issue rather than a fatigue issue.

Will a week make a difference?

If we can be sure that the Wallabies will come back with a massively increased effort this week, we can be equally assured that the All Blacks will be coming back with a more focussed and committed effort.

The All Blacks will have looked at the mistakes of the first half in Sydney. They will have learned from the Wallaby tactics and plays. They will be very aware of the possibility of a Wallaby bounce back, and they will be prepared for it.

If both teams do step up a gear or two, this could be a thrilling encounter.

Match-Day 23

New Zealand

The All Blacks have made two changes to their backline as Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett start against Australia at Eden Park on Saturday.

This week’s side features the same starting forward pack as last weekend, while Ofa Tuungafasi comes back onto the reserves bench for Tim Perry.

There are two injury-enforced changes in the backline. With winger Rieko Ioane ruled out, Waisake Naholo comes across to the left wing, Ben Smith moves to the right wing and Jordie Barrett has been named at full-back, for his third Test start.

In the midfield, Laumape comes in for Ryan Crotty.

Australia

Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika has made four changes to his starting line-up for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup Test against New Zealand in Auckland.

Folau Faingaa and Tom Banks are named on the replacements bench and are in line to make their Wallabies debuts in a team featuring an overhauled front-row – with Scott Sio returning from injury and Allan Alalaatoa also promoted to the starting front row – and Jack Maddocks’ elevation to the starting team.

Sio and Alalaatoa have replaced Tom Robertson and Sekope Kepu, who drop back to the bench after starting in the first Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney.

In the backs, an ankle injury to full-back Israel Folau has also forced a re-shuffle, with Dane Haylett-Petty moved to the number 15 jersey and Maddocks given the job of starting wing.

Faingaa comes into the side at the expense of Tolu Latu, whose poor throwing contributed to the Wallabies’ lineout losing eight on their throw last weekend.

Thoughts

It will require a monumental effort by the Wallabies if they want to change history and win a game at Eden Park for a change.

Have no doubt that they are capable of achieving such a win – they beat the All Blacks a year ago in Brisbane.

But beating the All Blacks in New Zealand is another story altogether.

Eden Park is something of a fortress for the All Blacks, they have an 85% win record at Eden Park. They have only lost once and drawn once at the venue in the last 24 years.

The All Blacks head into the Eden Park clash as overwhelming favourites.

As I mentioned earlier, the Wallabies need to fix some of the units and aspects of their game that were malfunctioning a week ago. The scrums and lineouts need serious rethinking and rejigging.

Their approach to the loose ball and rucks needs a rethink too. The All Blacks knew that the Wallaby game would be built around the considerable poaching skills of David Pocock, so they simply ensured that he was targeted at each and every cleanout. They shut him down and shut him out.

The real problem was not with Pocock’s endeavours. He toiled valiantly, sometimes man-alone against the black tide, but it was not enough. The real problem was in the manner that he was abandoned by his support players. Michael Hooper chose to hang off the rucks and tackles, probably looking for the opportunity to chase the All Black halfbacks. Perhaps it was tactical, perhaps he was trying to manage his lack of fitness, he was certainly breathing heavily? Lukhan Tui’s bulk and power, which was supposed to add physicality and brawn to the Wallaby effort in the collisions, was somehow missing in action.

The tight five, outmuscled and outthought in the set-pieces also hung out of the collisions, perhaps on the mental backfoot caused by the walloping they were taking in the game.

The Wallaby forwards will need to find the game that subdues the All Black forwards. They will have to be seriously competitive in the lineouts. They will have to be solid and unmoveable in the scrums.

At the very least they have to achieve parity at the set-pieces.

And then their focus has to be on winning the collisions and turning the ball over on the ground. They simply have to outmuscle the All Blacks.

If they can do these things, they have taken a step towards winning the Test.

So much depends on the back division finding a rhythm and focus that was missing last week. There has to be an increased level of physical intent, almost ferocity, in the collisions. There has to be dominance in contact. And there has to be a clinical accuracy that was missing a week ago.

Their backline game cannot simply revolve around one player, they have to work as an attacking team if they want to beat the All Blacks.

As an entire team the Wallabies will need a complete rethink of their defensive systems. Last week the Wallabies defended well, but ran out of cohesiveness and focus as the lungs started to burn, eventually missing 41 tackles and produced a disastrous tackle success rate of just 75% overall.

Nobody is going to beat the All Blacks if they do not make their tackles!

The Wallabies that have a number of tasks ahead of them. Fix the set-pieces, fix the misfiring contest for the ball in the loose, fix the one-dimensionality of their back play, and then fix their defence.

Do all those things, then match the All Blacks physically and they will have a chance of beating the World Champions at Eden Park.

Of course, so far the entire discussion has been about the Wallabies and what they need to do to win the match. The All Blacks will also have been working at fixing the things that went wrong in their own game last week.

They have lost two players to injury, but that is not nearly as much of a problem for the New Zealanders as it is for their opponents. Unlike their opponents they have a deep well of talented and blooded reserves from which to draw their replacements. Jordie Barrett steps into the fullback slot as Ben Smith simply switches to the wing for the injured Rieko Ioane.

The pocket-sized stick of dynamite that is Ngani Laumape steps up to take Ryan Crotty’s place at 12. He will earn his 7th All Black cap.

Two changes that in no way detract from the All Blacks’ striking power and overall game plans.

Laumape, in particular, will provide an added challenge to the Bernard Foley/Kurtley Beale defensive channels with his known tackle-busting ability. However, he is not just a crash-baller, he is also a very good linking 12 who can create opportunities on both his inside and outside.

The All Blacks have spoken of upping the ante in the set-pieces, issuing a warning to the Wallabies that they will again be targeting the scrums and lineouts for disruption and turnovers.

The Wallaby challenge is further complicated by the return to form of Beauden Barrett. His tactical and kick-passing game is just an added arrow in his quiver as he looks to get his midfield going with the ball, while he adds the dimension of his own considerable line-breaking skills. Last week he made 80 metres with the ball in hand, broke the Wallaby line three times, and scored a well-controlled dribble-and-pick-up try. One would expect him to take another step up this weekend.

The two teams head into this game after considerably different weeks.

The Wallabies will have been working on fixing mistakes, sorting out problems, and rejigging most of their game.

The All Blacks will have been working on eradicating the errors of last week, and then simply polishing and finetuning their game.

Which will have had the better week?

Prediction

The Wallabies face a mammoth task, and the evidence of last week suggests that there are simply too many problems and issues that need fixing for it all to come together just one short week later.

There is also the very real question of their Test-match fitness levels.

Will this week be any different to last week?

I cannot see the Wallabies repairing everything that was so badly broken last week.

In addition, this All Blacks outfit knows what they did wrong, and they know how to fix it.

One again, it will be frenetic for about 50 minutes, and then the All Blacks will surge………….

The All Blacks, by around 17 points.

Teams:

New Zealand: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown

Australia: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Folau Faingaa, 17 Tom Robertson, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Tom Banks