All Blacks scrape home in thriller
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.