Harsh refereeing costs Wallabies win and masks All Blacks’ weaknesses
Certain things in rugby union never seem to change. Australia have not hoisted the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 and their breathless 39-37 defeat by New Zealand in Melbourne on Thursday has extended that sequence. The difference on this occasion was the unique manner victory was ripped from the Wallabies’ grasp, courtesy of one of the more dramatic refereeing interventions in the history of the fixture.
Leading by three points with a penalty kick to touch from close to their own line, any team in the world would have taken their time and checked whether their bootlaces were securely tied. On this occasion, though, the time bandits were rumbled. Having awarded Australia a turnover penalty with the game clock showing 78 minutes and 25 seconds, the French referee, Mathieu Raynal, changed his mind and gave a New Zealand scrum with the timer by now showing 79:04.
Is 39 seconds an unreasonable delay? Could Monsieur Raynal have not simply added on a little more time rather than taking the nuclear option, from which the All Blacks duly scored through Jordie Barrett in the right corner?
Even the similarly initialled John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps could not match this late twist. Or, as the Australian captain, James Slipper, put it: “That was probably the most gutting way to finish a game.”
Of course World Rugby wants to speed up the game. Raynal had shouted “We play” on a couple of occasions as Bernard Foley waited for his pack to break from their tactical huddle behind him. The New Zealand coach, Ian Foster, called it “clear-cut”. Either way it felt mighty harsh in the context of Australia’s fine fightback from 31-13 down and has set a major precedent.
It also obscured the fact that the All Blacks remain distinctly mortal. Yes, they sneaked it at the last. But the majority of their points came when the Wallabies were reduced to 13 or 14 men and at no stage did the All Blacks look remotely back at the peak of their powers.
Instead it was a flawed, fluctuating match to give the national coaches of Ireland, England, Wales or even Scotland further encouragement about what the next 13 months might hold. Did either side look more organised than Ireland, more powerful than France, have a better lineout than England or seem as defensively inspired as Wales were on tour in South Africa?
Even with a numerical advantage, the All Blacks often huffed and puffed and only the sharp instincts of Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan ultimately bailed them out.
Clearly there is still time to tinker selection wise but it is in the crucial areas of tactical nous and clear thinking that New Zealand, once past masters at both, are currently diminished. Even the second-half try scored by the eager Samisoni Taukei’aho showcased some average decision-making, the hooker ignoring numerous extra men outside him. The rationale behind Hoskins Sotutu kicking ahead with the Wallaby cover stretched and, again, support runners at his elbow was equally curious.
Australia will be massively disappointed, consequently, to have let their visitors off the hook. The powerful Rob Valetini, the tireless Pete Samu and the returning Foley all deserved to be in the winners’ enclosure at Marvel Stadium and the craft of Foley at 10 made a notable difference to the variety of their attack.
With Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, Hunter Paisami, Will Skelton, Rory Arnold among those still potentially available to Dave Rennie next year, there is clear potential for further improvement. First, though, they have to start taking a higher percentage of their chances. Andrew Kellaway contributed a lovely second-half try but his failure to ground the ball after a slick first-half move was to prove extremely costly.
Darcy Swain also needs to calm down if he wants to prolong his international career. Sent off for butting England’s Jonny Hill in July, he appeared to target the braced lower leg of Quinn Tupaea in a maul in a manner that looked far more dangerous.
There will also be fresh concern in New Zealand about their battered captain, Sam Cane, who has a history of concussions and failed another head injury assessment.
The All Blacks got lucky on this occasion but a potentially tough European autumn still awaits.