After their best performance in years it’s time the Wallabies shed tag of ‘rugby’s great pretenders’
The Wallabies laid down a marker in Melbourne with their courageous, rousing and spirited performance in Bledisloe I.
As former representative centre Morgan Turinui said, it was “the best performance by the Wallabies in years”. It was.
Though, as Dave Rennie pointed out on Thursday, “we lost, so we need to go one better”.
But if Rennie’s men do not back up that match by taking it to Ian Foster’s men on Saturday at Eden Park in Auckland, their performance in Melbourne will mean little.
It will, despite Rennie not wanting to entertain that talk earlier this month, be another case of “one step forward and two back”.
Hitherto, the Wallabies have been rugby’s great pretenders.
For two decades they have tried to go toe-for-toe with the All Blacks but when the big moments have arrived, the Wallabies have wallowed.
Eden Park is the All Blacks’ last bastion. It is their fortress – the last remaining graveyard for international opposition.
Ireland, after being blown away in 20 minutes at Eden Park in July, managed to win, firstly, in Dunedin, and, secondly, in Wellington to claim a thrilling series win.
Then Michael Cheika’s Pumas knocked over Foster’s All Blacks in Christchurch in late August.
Now it is Eden Park – a venue at which the All Blacks have not lost since 1994 and not to the Wallabies since 1986 – where James Slipper’s side will attempt to pile more pressure on Foster’s miserable reign over the All Blacks.
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New Zealand’s coach remains under a world of pressure.
The former Chiefs mentor, who failed to win anything during his long tenure at the Super Rugby franchise, has stumbled regularly in the national job since taking over from Steve Hansen following the 2019 World Cup.
It began against Los Pumas in Sydney, where the All Blacks lost for the first time against the South Americans. Since then, the All Blacks have been making history for all the wrong reasons.
It helps explain why Foster was so ungracious, so disingenuous, following the All Blacks’ great escape in Bledisloe I.
How else to describe his reaction when he said the controversial decision by referee Mathieu Raynal, something rarely seen in the game, was “clear cut”?
They were the words of a man pretending he was in control.
The Wallabies have quite rightly been breathing fire since.
But unless they fire a shot at Eden Park, they won’t win the respect of either the Australian public or the rugby world.
Finally, Rennie has delivered one off the field.
He shrewdly went after the Rieko Ioane – the egotistical All Blacks back, who has all the tools to become one of the world’s best – who “mouthed off” at Folau Fainga’a about a perceived “disrespect” regarding the Wallabies’ response to New Zealand’s haka.
Ioane’s comments at the conclusion of the thrilling Test, one where Foster’s men showed some long-lost composure and polish to score out wide, was another example of the arrogance creeping over the once proud All Blacks brand like a growing weed.
He once dropped the ball over the line attempting a one-handed put down and Hansen attempted to wind him back by sending him back to the wing.
He has improved considerably over the past 12 months, but his unnecessary and uneducated comments weren’t missed by the Wallabies.
“I know Rieko Ioane had a lot to say to our boys after the final try, mouthing off at Folau Fainga’a about disrespecting the haka,” Rennie said.
The Wallabies must follow the lead of Rassie Erasmus, the brilliant coach, who inspired the Springboks to a remarkable victory in Wellington in 2018 after threatening to resign had they lost.
The win was the catalyst for their surge to World Cup glory, even though they lost to the All Blacks soon after in a nailbiter on home soil.
Saturday, at Eden Park, must be the moment the Wallabies grab the bull by the horns and stand up for their future. The Bledisloe Cup might be gone, but an Eden Park hoodoo must be ended.
If they do that, they will prove to themselves as much as anyone else they are a rugby force.
Until then, they will continue to be belittled by Foster’s All Blacks.
Everybody can appreciate the growing depth on Australian shores. The Wallabies pushed the All Blacks without their regular captain Michael Hooper, Samu Kerevi, Quade Cooper, Taniela Tupou, Tom Banks, Rory Arnold and Will Skelton.
Others such as Tate McDermott, Kurtley Beale, Suliasi Vunivalu and even Tolu Latu, who has the potential to emerge as world class once more, were not selected.
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Raynal’s howler should not mask the Wallabies’ performance at Marvel Stadium last week.
The All Blacks blew three tries either side of halftime. The Wallabies were slow out of the blocks and failed to win two kick restarts. Their discipline was horrible and they did not close out the match.
But they showed a resilience seldom seen during Cheika’s latter years in charge. They overturned an 18-point lead midway through the second half and did not let three yellow cards derail their effort.
They also attacked with precision. Bernard Foley was the first Wallabies playmaker this year to take on the defensive line.
More than anything, their fight showed character that will be needed at Eden Park. They will have to match the physicality of the All Blacks to stand a chance.
The last time the Wallabies had a point to prove in Sydney, they were smashed at the collision and set-piece by the Boks. It is why standing up at Eden Park represents a line-in-the-sand moment.
“While we’re disappointed we’re not going to Eden Park with a chance of winning the Bledisloe Cup, it’s a fairly big game for the All Blacks still with a Rugby Championship crown up for grabs,” Rennie said. “So we’re taking the game very seriously. It’s a big match for us. It’s a big match for them.”