Australia 6-20 New Zealand, Rugby World Cup, October 16, 2011
Glory beckons for rampant All Blacks
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 16, 2011
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw hugs head coach Graham Henry following their impressive victory over Australia at Eden Park © Getty Images
New Zealand took a big step towards ending a 24-year Rugby World Cup drought with a clinical display against Australia built on brute force and laced with breath-taking flair.
The All Blacks have set the standard throughout this tournament but not a side to rest on their laurels, they raised the bar once more against their fierce rivals to underline their status as the best side in the world and hammer home the fact that it is going to take something very special to deny them a first World Cup crown since 1987. Standing between them and the sport's biggest prize is France - the same side despatched in style at the sport's first global gathering. And on this evidence they look destined for a similar fate in seven days' time.
Head coach Graham Henry reserved special praise for his captain Richie McCaw and rightly so. The openside produced a spectacular return to top form just when an increasingly nervous New Zealand was beginning to think he was looking vulnerable. But there was no hint of the foot injury that has threatened to derail his personal bid for World Cup glory. In addition, the challenge posed by Australia's David Pocock, a player seemingly intent on claiming the title of the world's best fetcher, was dismissed at the breakdown although McCaw will be the first to point to the efforts of the tight five to build him the platform to do so.
But McCaw was not the only one to rise to the occasion. Fullback Israel Dagg and winger Cory Jane were making headlines for all the wrong reasons a week or so ago following an ill-advised night out on the booze three days before a game. The duo were reprimanded over their failure to make 'good decisions' and have since rewarded management for offering them a reprieve. Perhaps the fear of missing out on what is shaping up as something very special sparked them back into life? But either way, they were outstanding against the Wallabies.
Dagg's heady mix of pace and flair had Australia grasping at thin air on several occasions while Jane was supreme under the high ball. Time and time again the Wallabies sent the ball into the night sky hoping it would return with the weight of an expectant nation and force a mistake from an otherwise water-tight All Blacks defence. But there would be no breach and the home side grew in confidence as each raid was repelled.
Of equal note was the performance of hooker Keven Mealamu who relished the forward battle and rarely failed to make an impression in a shell-shocked Wallabies defence. Centre Ma'a Nonu was also at his threatening best and while stand-in stand-off Aaron Cruden was solid if not spectacular.
The Wallabies' fortunes were reflected in the performance of fly-half Quade Cooper. Under immense pressure from an Eden Park crowd baying for blood, incensed by the playmaker's ongoing spat with McCaw, and charged with helping to fill the creative void left by injured fullback Kurtley Beale, Cooper fluffed his lines and then some. With his first touch he sent the kick off sailing into touch and with his last he was thrown into touch by a rampant All Blacks side intent of setting the seal on their win in emphatic fashion.
In between he saw plenty of the ball but failed to make a significant impression as All Blacks cramped his style at every turn with each crunching tackle and thud into the turf drawing a roar from the crowd. While Cooper may have invited such a reaction with some of his on-field antics in recent months, which have been both classy and also cheap, it is rare to see such venom come from a Kiwi crowd and while adding to an intense atmosphere it is not necessarily desirable.
But he was not the only one on the receiving end of an All Blacks side not prepared to see their World Cup dream die in their rugby stronghold and at the hands of their bitter rivals. The Wallabies' pack was splintered at scrum time on a couple of occasions and their lineout and defensive formation creaked under severe pressure. Denied the chance to generate any momentum, they were forced to live off scraps and that scarcity of ball robbed them of any hint of fluency and sudden apprehension plagued their best attempts to throw off the shackles imposed by the All Blacks.
Tackles were missed and discipline suffered under strain, but even when presented with possession they were far too happy to kick the ball away and with it the chance to turn this game on its head. They sorely missed Beale's ability to make something happen out of nothing and others suffered in his absence. One spark from the fleet-footed fullback could have ignited the Wallabies' back division but it was not to be and they were simply beaten by a superior side.
This game was billed by many as the 'final' and as victors of the clash between the two top ranked sides in the world, New Zealand will enter next weekend's tournament finale as favourites. But it would be foolish to write off France and Henry and co will be stressing that fact in the coming days while at the same time attempting to keep their players grounded. The dream ending is in sight but the job is not done yet.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.