The All Blacks’ loss in Bris­bane was a lucky es­cape from the ex­is­ten­tial threat fac­ing the game.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Paul Thomas

The All Blacks’ loss in Bris­bane was a lucky es­cape from the ex­is­ten­tial threat fac­ing the game.

Iwas close too close for com­fort. But in an end­ing that might have been scripted in ­Hol­ly­wood, the threat to ev­ery­thing we hold dear was de­fused at the last minute. Com­fort­ing nor­mal­ity was re­stored, at least un­til next sea­son.

The All Blacks were hot on at­tack in the shadow of the Wal­laby goal­posts and look­ing like pulling off an­other great es­cape. Then the ball was fum­bled at the base of a ruck, the full-time whis­tle blew, the Aussies cel­e­brated and the ex­is­ten­tial threat to in­ter­na­tional rugby posed by New Zealand’s un­be­com­ing habit of win­ning all the time ( Sport, Oc­to­ber 28) evap­o­rated.

The Wal­la­bies’ 23-18 win in Bris­bane last week­end is be­ing her­alded as a turn­ing point for Aus­tralian rugby, al­though this seems an ­ex­ag­ger­a­tion: they made the 2015 World Cup fi­nal and are third in the in­ter­na­tional rank­ings. But it was cer­tainly a clas­sic ex­am­ple of sport’s black-and-white na­ture and its ca­pac­ity to de­liver tri­umph-or-dis­as­ter nar­ra­tives: if the Wal­la­bies had lost de­spite hav­ing ev­ery­thing in their favour, the doom-mon­ger­ing over the state of Aus­tralian rugby would have gone into over­drive.

From the per­spec­tive of the All Blacks, who had al­ready re­tained the Bledis­loe Cup, there was noth­ing rid­ing on the game. There would have been a de­sire to send Wayne Smith off on a win­ning note af­ter 17 years with the All Blacks in var­i­ous coach­ing roles, but us­ing in­di­vid­ual mile­stones for mo­ti­va­tion seems at odds with the “team first” men­tal­ity. Be­sides, it was also Wal­laby ­warhorse Stephen Moore’s last test, so both sides had that spur.

The Wal­la­bies, though, needed a vic­tory to sub­stan­ti­ate the claim that they’re on an up­ward tra­jec­tory and quash the de­featism to which the Aus­tralian rugby com­mu­nity was be­com­ing prey. Go­ing into the game, the Wal­la­bies had won just one of their 17 games against the All Blacks since the 2011 World Cup and the five Aus­tralian fran­chises failed to win a sin­gle game against Kiwi ­opposition in this year’s Su­per Rugby cham­pi­onship.

In Bris­bane, they were up against an All Blacks team de­prived of six of their first-choice play­ers, some of whom are the world’s best in their po­si­tions, and com­men­su­rately down on qual­ity, lead­er­ship and ex­pe­ri­ence. The peck­ing or­der at blind­side flanker has be­come blurred, but be­fore the game, Smith nom­i­nated Jerome

Kaino as the team’s leader on de­fence and our finest blind­side flanker since Ian Kirk­patrick, whose in­ter­na­tional ca­reer ended 40 years ago.

How­ever, Kaino didn’t play in Bris­bane and hasn’t played since the third test against the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions. His ab­sence be­gan as a time out af­ter his pri­vate life caught the ­pruri­ent at­ten­tion of an Aus­tralian tabloid, but there’s a catch-22 logic be­hind his lack of game time since he re­turned to the squad: he’s not play­ing now be­cause he hasn’t played lately.

And then there is the Wayne Barnes fac­tor. New Zealan­ders blamed the English ref­eree for the All Blacks’ ex­cru­ci­at­ing quar­ter­fi­nal loss to France at the 2007 World Cup: then-coach Gra­ham Henry reck­oned the French should’ve been pe­nalised 40 times; Barnes pinged them twice.

In the past seven years, the All Blacks have lost eight tests; Barnes ­ref­er­eed four of them. He was ­pre­cluded by his na­tion­al­ity from tak­ing charge of two other losses – to Eng­land and the Lions. Aus­tralia beat the All Blacks three times in that pe­riod; Barnes was the man with the whis­tle on all three oc­ca­sions. (The Aussies make a sim­i­lar case against Welsh­man Nigel Owens, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s ­favourite ref­eree.)

Should con­cerns over the All

Blacks’ dom­i­nance resur­face, the so­lu­tion is ob­vi­ous: send for Barnes, the hu­man hand­i­cap.

In the past seven years, the All Blacks have lost eight tests; Barnes ref­er­eed four of them.

Wayne Barnes: when the All Blacks lose, he’s often the man with the whis­tle.

Ex­ul­tant Wal­la­bies af­ter the Sun­corp Sta­dium win: a much­needed vic­tory.

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