Bledisloe bloodbath corrects All Blacks’ Cup course

Rugby


AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The All Blacks are too old. The World Cup campaign is off the rails. What is Steve Hansen doing?

Those were the conversations surrounding the All Blacks for seven days. But those same discussion points were blown out of the water just as the Wallabies were off Eden Park, the two-time defending World Cup champions putting an unconvincing few weeks of Test rugby behind them in a brutal 36-0 slaughter on Saturday night.

They retained the Bledisloe for an 18th straight year in the process, and brought Michael Cheika’s side crashing back down to earth at the same time.

The All Blacks’ changes proved a masterstroke as Sevu Reece and George Bridge enjoyed sparkling nights on either wing, while Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett finally delivered on the dual playmaker setup that has been another key conversation driver up and down New Zealand.

But the biggest change was in New Zealand’s intensity through the middle of the paddock and at the breakdown. Where the Wallabies had dominated both facets in Perth, they were the ones backtracking in Auckland as an All Blacks pack led by a relentless Ardie Savea returned trans-Tasman rugby play to its true north.

“We had to respond to a performance last week that probably we would all say wasn’t good enough from our point-of-view and an exceptional performance from Australia,” Hansen said. “Seven days is a long time in sport and we’ve seen that before. And this week everyone’s worked hard and done their job, from the analysts right through to the players, and you’ve just got to be proud of them.”

The Wallabies will look back on and lament a first 25 minutes where they failed to capitalise on a dominance of possession and territory, a period Christian Leali’ifano compounded with two poor penalty misses.

“I think early on, we soaked up a bit of pressure early on and then we actually started to get a bit of momentum,” Cheika said post-match. “We got a good run on the game and in order to succeed here we had to put some doubt into the opposition’s mind; and we needed to put some points on the board there and we got close on several occasions, both with some kicks and also with the ability to score a try to create more doubt there, which we didn’t do. And then on the first transition of that momentum we took a try.”

After the Wallabies had come within inches of scoring, the inaccuracy really set in. A 50/50 pass from Kurtley Beale proved too low for Reece Hodge to grasp and presented Mo’unga with the opportunity to break the game open.

The All Blacks No. 10 dutifully accepted, picking the ball up off his bootlaces and racing 50 metres to score.

When it should have been 3-3 or even 6-3 to the Wallabies, the All Blacks were suddenly 10 points to the good and it was all one-way traffic from there.

Leali’ifano’s night didn’t get any better when he sent an aimless kick down the centre of the field only a few minutes later, one that Barrett fielded and quickly turned into a counterattack. The All Blacks fullback shifted the ball beautifully to George Bridge who eased outside Wallabies back-rower Lukhan Salakai-Loto and through to the backfield, the winger’s final pass finding Aaron Smith on the classic scrum-half’s support line.

The conversion made it 17-0 with six minutes of the first half to play. Any hope of an Australian fightback was dead.

Not even the sin-binning of Dane Coles — which was one of the few negatives for New Zealand — could gift the Wallabies a foothold in the game as the All Blacks went close to scoring once more just before halftime.

The Wallabies were fortunate to be given a scrum upon the resumption, but all that did was present the All Blacks an opportunity to walk all over their opponents as they had done so through much of the first half.

After appearing to be an unlikely source of confidence even last week, the Wallabies’ scrum will again have their northern hemisphere counterparts, Pool D opponents Wales in particular, licking their lips. Australia were shunted backwards by a seven-man All Blacks scrum on Saturday night.

Sonny Bill Williams’ 46th minute try, where he powered onto a short ball from close range and wrestled the ball to the ground, booked the veteran centre’s ticket to Japan once and for all, if it ever really was in doubt.

Suddenly it looked like the Wallabies could be headed for their worst defeat at the hands of the All Blacks.

Further tries to Reece and Bridge brought that mark perilously close but the All Blacks instead had to settle for a new record margin over the Wallabies at Eden Park.

What the world champions will be infinitely more satisfied with however is that this was the performance they had been craving. Ordinary against the Pumas, held to a draw at home by the Springboks and then thrashed in Bledisloe I, the world champions were rightfully having their World Cup readiness questioned.

They were “embarrassed” in Perth last week, but they did the embarrassing in Auckland.

Saturday night’s result must be prefaced by the fact that it came at Eden Park, a venue the All Blacks haven’t lost at since 1994 and one where the Wallabies have been perennial whipping boys, and the fact that New Zealand simply cannot pick the stadium up and transport it to Japan.

When the All Blacks play with the intensity, physicality and ruthlessness as they did on Saturday night however, very few teams are capable of matching them. Australia certainly couldn’t, even though they were the architects of their own downfall on occasion.

Those key three rugby components had been missing for the All Blacks over the last few weeks. But the world champions have rediscovered them at just the right time, when the Bledisloe was on the line and those aforementioned conversations were starting to circulate not just up and down New Zealand but also across the world.



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