Bledisloe II result needs to be viewed in context

Australian rugby has been so battered and bruised this season — four losses in four games — that anything even remotely better than a hammering is hailed as something akin to the second coming.

That could be why journalists are slobbering over the national team after it lost narrowly to New Zealand at the death in the final international rugby game of the southern season. Australia led for more than three-quarters of the game, but could not hold together in the second half the way it had in the first 40 minutes.

To put the game in context, one has to bear in mind that New Zealand made 12 changes to the team that had beaten Australia the previous week. Given that the silverware on offer for the southern season — the Rugby Championship and the Bledisloe Cup — had both been won, New Zealand coach Ian Foster treated the game as a way to test out some new faces and see their worth.

This was not surprising given that Foster had to name the 33-man squad for the World Cup on Monday (7 August). But he took pains to have a highly experienced bench so he could go to them in the event that things went badly for his team. Three rookies were in his 15 for the game and that is a high number for any international – unless one is forced to play them due to injuries to other experienced hands.

The rookies made their share of mistakes as did seasoned hands. Shaun Stevenson, on the wing, was not in the correct position to defend when Marika Koroibete lunged for the line in the third minute, having moved inwards. And Damien McKenzie failed to hold onto Tom Hooper as the big Australian forward charged for the line; the New Zealand standoff hardly proved an obstacle to Hooper who scored Australia’s second try, giving the team a 14-0 lead by the eighth minute.

McKenzie did not help his team’s cause much right through his 50-odd minutes on the pitch, with some erratic kicking and an inability to effectively function as playmaker. Once he was replaced by Richie Mo’unga, there was decisiveness in the All Blacks’ play and their game picked up its pace.

Also contributing to the speeding up was Aaron Smith, who came on to replace Finlay Christie as scrum-half. The former showed why he is the top man in this position, giving a slick display, all the while keeping ball in hand and never kicking it away.

Australia, for their part, played a fast game, aided by the hard surface in Dunedin. They caught most of their passes and showed a willingness to experiment. One doubts if this strategy would have come off if New Zealand had played the same team as in Bledisloe I.

That is why things need to be kept in perspective as the World Cup approaches. Once the knockout stage of that tournament arrives, no country will put anything on the park apart from the best available team. There will be no experiments.

Australia has a relatively easy pool at the Cup, with Wales, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal to play in the league stage, and is expected to top the group. In the quarter-finals, Australia is likely to come up against Argentina, a team that it lost to in the Rugby Championship this year. Or it could be England. Celebrations are, thus, somewhat premature at this stage. There is one more game for Australia, against France, before the Cup begins.

Some fun facts: Australia lost to New Zealand 21-17 in Dunedin in 2003, a win which gave the Kiwis the Bledisloe Cup after a gap. In Bledisloe I that year, New Zealand hammered Australia 50-21. It was also a World Cup year. The similarities are striking – in 2023, New Zealand hammered Australia 38-7 in Bledisloe I, but squeaked through 23-20 in the second game. In 2003, however, New Zealand played a full strength team for both games.

The same Eddie Jones was in charge of Australia in 2003. Remember: Australia defeated New Zealand in the World Cup semi-finals that year, before losing to England in the final.

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