Australia 26-24 New Zealand, Bledisloe Cup, Hong Kong, Oct 30
Time for Wallabies to persevere
October 30, 2010
James O'Connor slots the winning points © Getty Images
Whether Australia's season becomes defined as a 'tale of two kicks' depends on the success of their season-ending tour, but few can dismiss the strides made by Robbie Deans' side since England departed Sydney in June with a much-trumpeted victory.
James O'Connor's match-winning conversion, to his own try, ended their nightmarish 10-game losing run against the All Blacks and ensured that the Wallabies could embark on their northern hemisphere tour with smiles on their faces. Kurtley Beale's 55-metre penalty against South Africa was the previous high point in their season but with a clean sweep of their European fixtures both kicks could soon just be billed as building blocks.
A year out from the World Cup the Wallabies are in an intriguing position. The All Blacks remain the world's best side by a fairly comfortable margin - anyone who saw their comeback in Hong Kong can testify to the replacement of Dan Carter as a vital change in the game - but the Wallabies' rise shows no sign of slowing down.
They have rough edges aplenty but also game-breaking talent from nine to 15. Where they lacked previously was in the mental department. Saturday's result should banish a few more demons before next weekend's meeting with Wales - there for the taking after so many injuries - and allow them to work on ironing out the creases in their game without constant mention of their seeming inability to beat New Zealand.
Carter's return from injury and his subsequent meeting with Quade Cooper headlined the pre-game build-up - after Sonny Bill was banished to the stands - and the differing fortunes of the two fly-halves spoke volumes. Cooper hit the ground running and by the time he powered over for Australia's opening try he had already attempted an audacious flip pass out of a Carter tackle.
As the seconds ticked away and Australia's lead grew his influence lessened. His kicks became overcooked, his defence fell apart. All the while, Carter ratcheted up the pressure by banishing his early kicking problems and running through a few careful, simple miss passes to unlock some naïve Australian defence.
Carter's replacement on 60 minutes reintroduced Stephen Donald to the Test arena and two costly slips by the in-form Waikato playmaker helped to decide the outcome. His missed penalty meant that Australia remained within a converted try and when he was presented with a chance to end the game with the boot after an Australian surge - inspired by a rejuvenated Cooper - he found only the waiting arms of Beale. Carter would have made that kick.
In the aftermath of such an emotional, high octane game it is important not to get carried away. Cooper will face critics over the next seven days and doubtless the name of the composed Berrick Barnes will be mentioned in connection with a spot in the starting line-up.
Australia must persevere with Cooper. He may be rash and prone to mistakes but he is also one of the game's brightest hopes and a genuine playmaker; his step and passing game are magnificent. The defence will improve and exposure to the likes of Carter should see his game management follow suit. The cautionary tale of one of his Super Rugby opponents for next season - Melbourne's Danny Cipriani - should be required reading for some this week.
As for Donald, his brief is more difficult. How do you follow the greatest? This season he has improved his physicality and kicking game in the colours of Waikato and is only a handful of games into his comeback from a serious injury. He still represents the All Blacks' best back-up to Carter, leaving aside overseas practitioners.
The Australian camp will be buoyant this week, but the All Blacks will not be bound up by doom and gloom. Their comeback from 12-0 down showed why they are a great side - it was based on a monstrous carrying game from their pack and was inspired by their back-row, who were magnificent. Richie McCaw was everywhere while simultaneously dealing with the superb David Pocock and No.8 Kieran Read's intelligent support play is complemented well by the power and barely-concealed malice of Jerome Kaino.
Australia cannot currently match the All Blacks in terms of physicality and ball-carrying and this is where they were undone towards the end of the first half. The New Zealand back-row and tight five flooded Cooper's channel and attacked around the fringes mercilessly - defending against them is a lung-busting chore. It's questionable that the northern hemisphere sides can live with either team, but for different reasons.
Another major plus for the All Blacks was the way in which they dominated the Australian scrum for large portions of the game. England will have taken note again of the Wallabies' frailty in that area and while referee Alain Rolland must accept a portion of the blame with his laboured handling of the 'crouch, touch, pause, engage', the return of Australia's first-choice front-row did not return the desired results. England are up next for the Grand Slam-chasing Tri-Nations champions and the word 'backlash' will not be far from the lips of many in the build-up.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.