When Australian scrum-half Nic White was walking off the field after the whistle blew for half-time in the third Bledisloe Cup game on 31 October, he was given a headset and microphone by Fox Sports and asked for his take on the game upto that point.
Australia had been outplayed by New Zealand in the first 40 minutes and were trailing 0-26, meaning that the horse had well and truly bolted and any chance of them making a fight of it had disappeared.
But White seemed to be in an alternate universe. “No disrespect, but they haven’t done a whole lot, it’s just been all our mistakes. We’re just gifting them points,” was what he had to offer.
When commentator Phil Kearns, a man who played 67 Tests for the Wallabies, came back with “Sixty-seven percent possession they got, mate,” White quickly took off the headphones, handed them to a man on the Fox Sports team and walked away into the change rooms.
The exchange reminded me of the way the American tennis player Serena Williams reacts when she loses during a Grand Slam – it’s because she played badly, not because her vanquisher played a good game.
One offers this exchange to illustrate one point: unless one acknowledges one’s mistakes, it is not possible to correct them. True, White may have been indulging in spin as many people do when confronted by the media, but had he acknowledged that Australia was behind because it had come up against a side that was doing all the basics extremely well, he probably would have been more accurate. Like many other Australians, White seems to have a big blind spot when it comes to acknowledging that one has been outplayed.
To the match itself, it was practically over after the first half. Few teams can come back from such a deficit – and bear in mind that two additional tries were not awarded to the men in black. One was due to a marvellous save by Australian winger Marike Koroibete, who got under the ball when Kiwi wing-three-quarter Caleb Clarke, no easy customer to tackle, was trying to force down.
The other try that was disallowed was debatable; hooker Dane Coles charged onto a kick into the in-goal area by fly-half Richie Mo’unga, and tried to get his hands on the ball and effect a touchdown. From some angles, it looked like he had succeeded. From others, it appeared that he did not have full control of the ball.
But even then, the All Blacks ran in four tries, some of which should never be allowed at the international level. Mo’unga was in top form and used all his guile and skills to cross for two of the four tries which his team scored before half-time.
The great West Indies teams of the 1980s and early 1990s had a tactic of targeting bowlers who either were becoming a threat to them, or else thought they were becoming a threat, and demoralising them. The main method used was for Viv Richards to attack the bowler in question and take him to the cleaners. It worked in many cases.
Similarly, the All Blacks appear to have a strategy of making newcomers in opposing teams feel out of place and this often results in the newbie suffering a major crisis of confidence. In the case of Noah Lolesio, picked to make his debut as standoff, perhaps their task was easier for the pint-sized fly-half seemed to be intent on making himself a small target.
The No 10 is normally the playmaker, but Lolesio seemed content to operate from where a full-back normally positions himself/herself, and kick when he got the ball. His kicking was poor, and in one case, when kicking for touch, he landed the ball in the in-goal area. It looks like picking him for his international debut against the All Blacks was not the most judicious move by Australian coach Dave Rennie.
The fact that Rennie had to pick Lolesio to fill the No 10 spot is a glaring admission that Australia has very little depth when it comes to players. Bernard Foley, a reliable if unspectacular fly-half, went off to Japan after the 2019 World Cup, but it is doubtful he would have been picked this year given his disastrous performance in the one game he played during that tournament.
One wonders what Rennie will do in the remaining game against New Zealand. He cannot drop Lolesio for it would destroy the man’s confidence. He will have to bring back James O’Connor to fill this pivotal role as he is now fit to resume playing. But Lolesio will have to be in the match-day 23.
One hopes that Rennie will bring Tom Banks who did a decent job at full-back in the first two Tests against New Zealand before being suddenly dropped for the third. The coach should also pick Isi Naisarani in the No 8 position and jettison Harry Wilson; the latter appears to be a hot-head and woefully short of common-sense and ability. Exactly why Naisarani, a Fijian who did a wonderful job last year, has been kept out of the team is not known.
Brisbane has been a somewhat happier hunting ground for Australia against New Zealand. But the scars suffered in the third game — where they went down by the biggest margin in any game against New Zealand — may not be so easy to heal. But at least this time there will be no overblown expectations that Australia will make a contest of the game.