New Zealand supporters are concerned. And not just because of a Bledisloe Cup defeat in which their team conceded 46 points – more than they ever have done in a Test match.
Saturday represented the All Blacks’ fifth loss over 30 games since the start of the 2017 British and Irish Lions series. They have wobbled at other times during the same period, recording two draws. Scotland, Argentina and England have all finished within a score of them.
Although build-ups to previous Rugby World Cup campaigns have been punctuated by poor results, the creeping fear is that this year feels slightly different.
Regardless of the red card to Scott Barrett, Australia’s meticulously planned and powerful performance certainly offered hope to teams aiming to stop New Zealand from recording a third title in succession.
Launching Kerevi and Koroibete from lineouts
The Wallabies only recorded 12 kicks from hand during the entire 80 minutes in Perth. Indeed, after receiving the kick-off, they swept the ball across their own 22. Samu Kerevi was caught behind the gain-line by Jack Goodhue, but muscled out of the tackle and stayed on his feet for support to arrive as Anton Lienert Brown, Kieran Read and Sam Cane swarmed him.
Nic White sniped, probing New Zealand’s fringe defence early on, and Goodhue conceded a breakdown penalty. That would set the tone for the scrum-half’s evening. Reece Hodge hit touch. From a seven-man set-piece, fly-half Christian Leali’ifano fires a pass that sends James O’Connor fading across Kerevi with Marika Koroibete following him:
O’Connor links with Koroibete behind the run of Kurtley Beale and the ball is moved to Hodge. Rieko Ioane and Beauden Barrett shoot up outside of Goodhue, but Koroibete follows his pass.
He receives an offload out of Barrett’s tackle and kicks down-field. Australia’s chase pressurises a covering Ben Smith and Australia win a lineout inside the opposition 22.
Four minutes later from a shortened Australia lineout, New Zealand post loosehead prop Joe Moody inside back-rowers Ardie Savea and Sam Cane in midfield. Leali’ifano launches Kerevi behind a charging Koroibete:
Australia ended up with 11 lineouts to New Zealand’s four, which demonstrates how the All Blacks were more willing to clear into touch. Michael Cheika’s analysts had obviously studied their opponents’ first-phase defensive formations. At the start of the second quarter, Izack Rodda takes this lineout and feeds White. Moody is positioned at the tail with Dane Coles in the ‘tail-gunner’ slot and eager to shut down space…
…but White throws a dummy, steps inside New Zealand’s hooker and offloads to Hodge:
The blindside wing darts in between Moody and Savea for a big line-break.
In the lead-up to Koroibete’s second-half try, Leali’ifano conducts another intricate midfield shape. This time, he takes the ball flatter and fixes Savea. Kerevi storms up opposite New Zealand fly-half Richie Mo’unga.
Behind that, in Australia’s second wave, are Koroibete and O’Connor. Ngani Laumape is wary of a pull-back pass…
…which isolates Mo’unga opposite the explosive Kerevi, who fades on Leali’fano’s pass and crosses New Zealand’s 22:
Precise, incisive first-phase moves are a tradition of Australian rugby and helped to overwhelm the All Blacks.
A year ago, Steve Hansen’s side savaged Australia in Sydney. A 38-13 victory was founded on tries in transition situations, after they had forced turnovers and picked apart the reorganising defence. Usually, they capitalised on mis-matches against vulnerable tight-five forwards.
Last weekend, Cheika used his in-game interview to praise Australia’s transition defence. This started with their sparse kicking strategy, but the Wallabies’ first try owed to their calmness and graft after losing possession. This sequence begins as Leali’fano finds hooker Tolu Latu. Throughout this section, track Australia props Scott Sio and Michael Alaalatoa.
Kerevi slides behind a bank of three forwards…
…and receives a pull-back pass. With Michael Hooper roaming wide, the centre looks to pierce the gap between Coles and Ioane:
He does so, flicking an offload towards Hooper as Savea recovers to make a tackle:
Now, this is where New Zealand are so dangerous. Ioane gathers, offloading to Aaron Smith. A long pass finds Beauden Barrett, who swings the ball to Anton Lienert-Brown. Alaalatoa and Sio are part of the defensive line, but do not panic.
Instead, they stay in a connected with those outside them:
When the ball is moved across to Goodhue and New Zealand’s outside centre cuts back inside O’Connor, Sio and Alaalatoa combine to make a tackle:
Danger lingers for Australia, though. From the resulting ruck, Aaron Smith feeds Mo’unga. Watch White and Latu:
The former shoots up, blocking a longer pass into the wide channels. White makes the tackle and Mo’unga fumbles:
Beauden Barrett gathers and chips over the defensive line but Lukhan Salakaia-Loto covers and, via a bizarre ricochet, O’Connor releases Hodge:
In the back-and-forth exchanges such as this, mobile front-rowers are so important. Australia’s shone all evening.
Between them, the Wallabies’ starting tight-five forwards tallied 52 carries. They also inspired a strong set-piece effort, which included a lineout turnover instigated by Rory Arnold’s pressure on Read…
…and completed with Alaalatoa’s snaffle:
Replacement tighthead Taniela Tupou also deserves credit for a second-half crucial turnover when New Zealand had cut the deficit to 26-19.
Before that was the Wallabies’ first sequence against 14 men, which begins from a Kurtley Beale kick-return and underlines the dynamism of Sio, Latu, Alaalatoa, Rodda and Arnold.
First, Sio runs flat to gather White’s pass. Latu is part of the previous breakdown…
…but bounces up to join Beale on the near side, allowing White to zig zag. The hooker trundles some 20 metres up-field to the verge of New Zealand’s 22:
Arnold then cuts a line…
…but White holds on, perhaps wary that the carrier will become isolated. He is probably fortunate not to be penalised for obstruction and is allowed to find Rodda:
New Zealand hold firm, with Aaron Smith diving in to compete on the floor. This ties in White and stunts Australia’s momentum. However, Arnold arcs back around to rescue the situation with a clear-out:
The Wallabies were efficient and opportunistic inside the opposition 22. A few phases later, Owen Franks shunts through a ruck and catches White, who attempts to milk a penalty from Jerome Garces.
Watch Read and Aaron Smith. They swap places in the defensive line…
…and, after getting back up, White jinks inside his opposite man:
Modern scrum-halves often fill in the front line rather than sitting in the pocket and Australia often tested Aaron Smith whenever he stepped up.
Salakaia-Loto scored from this attack via a five-metre scrum, fittingly after a slick pass by Arnold. Australia’s forwards were exceptional all evening and then came Kerevi’s bulldozing run for White’s try directly from the following restart:
It had been made by a succession of dominant contributions: Salakai-Loto’s carry, a Latu pick-and-go, Leali’fano’s dart with Hooper on his shoulder, a burst from Isa Naisarani and then another Koroibete pick-and-go.
Australia kept challenging New Zealand’s fringe defence in intelligent ways.
Continuing a recent trend of back-three players darting close to the ruck, full-back Beale caused plenty of trouble.
In the first half, he coaxed a penalty out of Franks for an early tackle after this off-the-ball run in front of a bank of three forwards:
White dummies, taking on Aaron Smith, and Beale is clattered. Later on, New Zealand turn Australia with a kick down-field:
White fields and passes to Beale, who has surveyed a tired All Blacks chase:
He steps past Sam Whitelock and takes on New Zealand’s tight-five forwards…
…before linking with Salakaia-Loto:
Beale’s late try, sealing the victory, comes from a lovely angle:
With Atu Moli preoccupied by three flat runners and Beauden Barrett watching the ball, Beale slices in front of his teammates to receive a crisp Will Genia pass and wriggles through a hole:
It epitomised the variety and accuracy of Australia’s attacking display, especially in the wake of Scott Barrett’s sending-off.
Hooper’s point pays off
As mentioned earlier, Australia definitely seemed to adopt a ploy of tightening up inside New Zealand’s 22 with Koroibete mucking in to join his forwards – not unlike Exeter Chiefs or Wales during the recent Six Nations.
In the 26th minute, just prior to a penalty that made it 13-12, Hooper picks from the base of a ruck and is tackled by Read and Scott Barrett:
When the penalty comes, for a different offence, captain Hooper gees up his troops…
…before making a point to Garces: “There was a shoulder charge on myself…to the head”. Garces disagrees, seeming to explain that the contact was not direct. Even so, the pair remain in conversation for a while:
Now, Hooper has not always been the most persuasive skipper when talking to referees. This point appears to stick, though.
Scott Barrett had actually wrapped his arms in the previous tackle. When the he and Hooper come together again around the fringes on the verge of half-time, though, after Ardie Savea has gifted field position to Australia by pushing Hooper, the tackle is more suspect:
Koroibete has the next go, and is stopped by Franks (left circle). Hooper and Scott Barrett get up (right circle)…
…and then meet in a collision that would define the game:
As outlined by World Rugby’s new decision-making matrix, it is the sling action of the tackler – denoting no intention to wrap – that puts Barrett in deep trouble:
Australia’s focus on the fringes troubled New Zealand all night and may set an interesting precedent. Defenders’ tackling techniques will be under immense scrutiny.
This weekend, the Wallabies may feel a robust backlash at Eden Park. If and when Ryan Crotty and Brodie Retallick return, they Even so, their efforts in Perth have given plenty of hope to New Zealand’s challengers in Japan.
Match images courtesy of Sky Sports