All Blacks scrape home in thriller

Herald on Sunday - - SPORT - By Gre­gor Paul in Dunedin

The harder the nut is to crack, the sweeter it is to taste and so it proved in Dunedin. The Wal­la­bies brought in­fin­itely more phys­i­cal­ity, de­fen­sive bite and rugby smarts to Dunedin than they had in Syd­ney and as such they made the All Blacks work in­fin­itely harder for the vic­tory.

This was a proper test, a gen­uine Bledis­loe Cup con­test that took the All Blacks to the brink of their men­tal and phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity. This was the best game be­tween these two teams in an age. A clas­sic. A heart-stop­ping end-to-end bril­liant con­test that showed this ri­valry is alive.

The Wal­la­bies are alive and lest any­one should worry about the All Blacks, don’t. They showed re­mark­able com­po­sure to win. They had to con­jure a try in the last three min­utes and they did it as if it was noth­ing.

They didn’t panic. They didn’t try to be smart, they won the ball back from the kick­off and played ruth­less, skilled rugby from that point to set Beau­den Bar­rett over by the posts.

Mo­ments like that show ma­tu­rity and lead­er­ship of this All Blacks team is de­vel­op­ing just as it should.

Ad­mit­tedly they may feel like they shouldn’t have been in such a pickle as it was. They were mas­sively out of sorts in the first 20 min­utes and then didn’t nail their op­por­tu­ni­ties — not enough of them any­way in the sec­ond half.

They dom­i­nated pos­ses­sion in the sec­ond half, felt like they were al­ways go­ing for­ward but the points wouldn’t come the way they wanted.

The score­board was stub­born, as were the Wal­la­bies. They wouldn’t crack. They didn’t give any­thing easy away and given the car­nage grip­ping the game across the Tas­man, that was the best the Wal­la­bies and ev­ery­one else could hope for.

Restor­ing pride was pre­sum­ably high on the Wal­laby agenda and the fact they led the test un­til the 60th minute, wres­tled it back in the last four, should make them feel they achieved their goal.

The All Blacks ob­vi­ously achieved theirs, not nec­es­sar­ily with the per­for­mance they were af­ter, but one with enough heart, per­se­ver­ance and scrum­mag­ing crunch to be sat­is­fied.

The scrum­mag­ing was es­pe­cially good but they will feel they didn’t make the most of it. They will feel they were too loose in the first half and that was largely what made life so hard for them un­til they dug so deep in the last 20 min­utes.

It was semi-mirac­u­lous, part ridicu­lous that the Wal­la­bies were able to hold such a com­mand­ing lead.

They had barely held the ball, but they has­sled, har­ried, pounced and some­how scored three un­likely tries.

They prof­ited mainly from All Blacks mis­takes, but still, there was no mis­tak­ing their pass and catch sharp­ness and ruth­less edge when they moved the ball.

But nor was there any hid­ing from the un­der­ly­ing fun­da­men­tals. The All Blacks scrum, al­lowed to en­gage and en­gen­der a con­test in the way it wasn’t last week, had a dom­i­nance about it.

The All Blacks were win­ning their li­ne­out ball ex­actly as they wanted and they were still, de­spite the im­prove­ment in Aus­tralia’s tack­ling and ag­gres­sion, able to re­cy­cle that quick ball which makes them so dan­ger­ous.

Their prob­lem, strangely, and in stark con­trast to what hap­pened in Syd­ney, was their skill ex­e­cu­tion.

They spilled a lot of ball. Sonny Bill Wil­liams man­aged to lose it in four con­sec­u­tive car­ries and there was a lot of loose pre­sen­ta­tion that led to care­less knock-ons.

What was maybe of more con­cern was the lack of co­he­sion at times. There were play­ers get­ting in each other’s way.

There were passes be­ing fired the wrong way — away and not to­wards the bulk of the sup­port — and there was just a hint that they were miss­ing a lit­tle com­po­sure, or men­tal sharp­ness, some­thing any­way that was re­sult­ing in them not fin­ish­ing the half chances they have be­come masters at ex­ploit­ing.

They put it right, fi­nally, just in time to re­tain the Bledis­loe Cup for an­other year.

Beau­den Bar­rett scored one of five tries for the All Blacks and kicked all the con­ver­sions.

Brett Phibbs

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