Gerry Thornley: Uneasy lies New Zealand’s World Cup crown
Losing to Australia will give All Blacks a jolt, but will it be enough to keep them on top?
Reece Hodge of Australia celebrates his try during the 2019 Rugby Championship test match between Australia and New Zealand last Saturday. Photograph: James Worsfold/Getty Images
Uneasy lies the crown. The feeling that this year’s World Cup is undoubtedly the most openly competitive in yonks, perhaps ever, was strengthened by the events of the weekend. Not alone have almost all of the chasing peleton made strides in recent times, but the back-to-back world champions New Zealand have come back to them.
There were mitigating factors in Australia’s 47-26 win over the All Blacks in Perth on Saturday, notably Scott Barrett’s red card on the brink of half-time with the Wallabies 12-10 ahead.
For all the ensuing debate, Jérôme Garcès fulfilled World Rugby’s new framework on illegal tackles, which are designed to make the game safer. Had Garcès not done so, he’d have been accused of not applying those guidelines. The scoreline at the time and the effect it had on the remainder of the match are irrelevant.
It’s also worth noting that, even by their standards, the All Blacks had been living off scraps up until that point, with just 19 per cent possession and 13 per cent territory. The die had already been cast.
But while this is only the third time since 2009 that the All Blacks haven’t won the Tri Nations or Rugby Championship, the previous two occasions were in 2011 and 2015 when, of course, they went on to win the William Webb Ellis trophy.
It’s as if they like to give themselves a jolt before the World Cup. In 2011 they lost their last two games in an abbreviated Tri Nations, by 18-5 against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth when Graham Henry sent out a second-string team, and by 25-20 against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
The knives were out, especially for Dan Carter, after some missed kicks, missed tackles and messed-up restarts
They were back to full strength for that epic Tri Nations decider in Brisbane against an inspired Australia. But when they next met in the World Cup semi-finals in Eden Park two months later, all but four of the same starting XV pitched up for a vengeful 20-6 win.
Four years ago the All Blacks were beaten 27-19 by the Wallabies in front of a crowd of 73,824 at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney. The knives were out, especially for Dan Carter, after some missed kicks, missed tackles and messed-up restarts.
Steve Hansen stayed calm, made only three changes in restoring Ma’a Nonu, Sam Whitelock and Victor Vito, and seven days later the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup with a 41-13 rout in home farewells for Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and others. Two months on, all but two of that side beat the Wallabies 34-17 in the World Cup final at Twickenham.
Then, as now, they will be feeding off the wounds and the brickbats. The All Blacks’ very own website yesterday put up Stuart Barnes’s assessment that they will not win the World Cup, and some triumphalist writing in Australia. All grist to the mill.
Yet this feels different, certainly compared to four years ago.
Whereas in the 2007-11 cycle New Zealand had won 39 and lost nine matches, between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups they played 47 games, won 42, drew two and lost only three, away to England, South Africa and Australia.
In this World Cup cycle they have played 45 matches, winning 37, drawing two and losing six – to Ireland (twice), Australia (twice), the Lions and South Africa.
Their most settled combination, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in the second-row, has been disrupted by the former’s injury
It’s not just that. Four years ago the All Blacks also had a very settled side going into the 2015 World Cup. Now their front-row is being bullied at scrum time and around the pitch by the Wallabies, prompting former All Blacks coach John Hart to state that Owen Franks and Joe Moody should be replaced in the starting team by Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao.
Their most settled combination, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in the second-row, has been disrupted by the former’s injury while Hansen and co reverted to another new back-row permutation in accommodating Ardie Savea and Sam Cane.
Nor is their midfield anything like as settled as the record-breaking Nonu-Conrad Smith partnership, while the recent experiment of playing the world’s best outhalf, Beauden Barrett, at fullback with Richie Mo’unga at 10 means the same applies at both half-back and the back three. Admittedly, even operating off starvation rations, one could see why Hansen and co want to have both playmakers.
In the absence of the unfortunate Damien McKenzie, it means they have one at first receiver on either side of a ruck in the middle of the pitch, or two in tandem if going wide.
The benefits could be seen in the 17th minute. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto coughed up a pass from Kurtley Beale into the arms of Anton Lienert-Brown. From the immediate recycle, Barrett steamed up from fullback to collect a long pass from Aaron Smith and skip pass to Dane Coles in that outside centre channel he loves and where he was confronted by the Wallabies’ front-row. It had taken seven seconds and two passes for this to happen. Coles beat Allan Ala’alatoa and Smith left the other front-rowers for dead in supporting on the inside before putting Reiko Ioane over. Classic All Blacks transitioning from defence to attack.
In the second-half Mo’unga and Barrett pulled the strings before Barrett came on to Mo’unga’s pass and beat both Salakaia-Loto and Michael Hooper. Tellingly too, Mo’unga converted both, for, world-class player though Barrett is, his placekicking ratio at test level is around 77 per cent.
However, it seems safe to say that every single opposition team would prefer to see Barrett at 15, so why do what the opposition want?
Still, it’s been 18 tests since Australia last beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, in 1986, when David Campese and Andrew Leeds scored tries in a 22-8 win. The All Blacks are unbeaten there in 41 matches, dating back to July 1994, and any kind of win next Saturday would see them retain the Bledisloe Cup for a 17th year running.
An All Blacks backlash seems inevitable, but uneasy lies their World Cup crown.