After the first match in the Bledisloe Cup series ended in a 16-all draw, Australian sports writers were on a giddy high, predicting that the dominance of the All Blacks had more or less ended and the big boys had been caught with their pants down.
Well before this hype began, at the end of the game, there was a gesture by the Australian team which showed that its mental state was still very fragile. When the final whistle blew, the ball was still live, so the referee let play proceed.
A thrilling nine minutes ensued, with first Australia, and then New Zealand, threatening to score. Strangely, though, neither team thought of attempting a drop-goal to win the game. After one of the New Zealand forays, the Australians regained the ball and fly-half James O’Connor kicked it into touch, ending the game.
Now O’Connor could have continued play, by running the ball from his own end. The All Blacks never took the option of ending the game when they got the ball during that nine-minute stretch. O’Connor’s gesture gave the game away: for Australia, a draw was as good as a win. It indicated the extent to which he ranked his team against the All Blacks, despite the heroics they had showed.
With that kind of mental attitude, it was only to be expected that Australia would lose at Eden Park the following week. As they did, by a 27-7 margin, at a venue where they have not beaten New Zealand since 1986.
During the week, there were several triumphal essays in the Australian press; one, by Jamie Pandaram, a senior sports writer at The Daily Telegraph, gives an insight into the type of shallow understanding that sports writers on this side of the Tasman have when it comes to rugby union, and the nationalistic fervour that surrounds sport (as it does everything else).
The headline gave an indication of the bombast that was to follow, reading: “Why All Blacks are finally vulnerable.” It started off saying that while facing a beaten All Blacks team was a dangerous exercise, “there’s a different feel about 2020”.
And he cited concerns about the coaching, selection, tactics and loss of seniority in All Black ranks as factors that had contributed to what he called a decline in their ranks.
He cited the absence of four players – Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty – as making the team unable to produce those moments of inspiration for which they have become famous. And he claimed that Ian Foster, who took over as coach from Steve Hansen after the 2019 World Cup, was not the best coach among those who could be chosen.
As evidence that stress was allegedly mounting on New Zealand, Pandaram cited the complaints made by the assistant coach John Plumtree about illegal tactics employed by Australia in taking out players.
The first game was unusual in that it was not refereed by a neutral referee – the first time this has happened in a long time and mainly due to the travel issues cause by the coronavirus pandemic.
The referee, New Zealand’s Paul Williams, had to tread a difficult path; he had to ensure that his rulings could not be criticised as being partial to his own country and at the same time he had to police Australia’s thuggery properly without accusations of bias. Having watched the match twice, I can say with confidence that Williams only erred once, in not calling Rieko Ioane for stepping on the sideline boundary when he began what ended up as a try. This was the fault of Australian Angus Gardner who was the linesman on the side concerned.
“It’s a common Kiwi play; turn the referees’ and public’s attention to perceived cheating by their opposition – we’ve seen them previously call out the Wallabies’ scrumming and breakdown play – to take the spotlight away from their own,” wrote Pandaram, completely forgetting that this was exactly what former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika did after every game.
He opined that Foster would be under “intense scrutiny” during the second game as many people in New Zealand felt that the job of chief coach should have gone to Scott Robertson instead, the latter being one who has taken the Crusaders to four Super Rugby titles in his first four years as their coach.
And Pandaram went on and on, outlining what he perceived to be issues with the team, about playing this player and that in this position or that.
I haven’t seen anything he wrote after the second game when Australia was competitive for just one half, and unable to score in the second half. All those perceived “problems” he pointed out were gone.
One crucial factor that he forgot was that this was the first game for both teams this year. Normally, both Australia and New Zealand play two or three Tests before the games against each other, South Africa and Argentina, which make up the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship each year, begin. Both teams were quite rusty.
In 2015, New Zealand lost more talent after the World Cup than they did in 2019; that time Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu all retired from international rugby. But the side picked up and carried on.
A lot of Pandaram’s moaning comes out of nationalism; Australians are the most one-sided sports writers I have seen. When one is shown up like this, they tend to lie quiet until the public forgets. As Pandaram is doing now.