The old saying goes, don’t poke the bear, but when Andrew Kellaway, with all the innocence of youth, suggested the All Blacks had lost their aura following last weekend’s opening Bledisloe Cup Test of 2021, the rookie Wallabies winger had done just that.
Kellaway’s observation was based on Australia’s stirring comeback from 33-8 down to 33-25 thanks to three tries in the final 15 minutes at Eden Park. The Wallabies will take a lot of confidence from that fightback into Saturday’s second Test, also at the All Blacks’ Auckland fortress, but they would have been wise to follow the example of Rod Macqueen’s Australian side during their golden era between 1998 and 2001.
Under Macqueen, the Wallabies adopted a wily approach towards public relations, known as Agenda A and Agenda B. Agenda A referred to internal communication within the team, while Agenda B was comment for public consumption. The two quite often had completely different messaging.
Kellaway’s comment in a New Zealand radio interview fell into the Agenda A category. It should have been kept in-house. If the Wallabies felt buoyed by their comeback, that’s great, but internalise it, do not give the All Blacks any motivational fuel.
Even though they held an unassailable lead, the All Blacks will be bitterly disappointed about the way they finished the game last Saturday. They take a lot of pride in how they finish and it is very rare for the Kiwis’ reserves to be outplayed by the opposition’s bench. New Zealand will be treating the last 15 minutes of the game as a loss and it is no secret how the All Blacks respond after a defeat – severely.
Over the years the All Blacks coaching staff and senior players have been very good at identifying and rectifying problems in a short space of time. They will have worked hard on their ill-discipline, lack of ruthlessness and incoherence among their reserve outside backs.
In the past the All Blacks would have kept their foot on the Wallabies’ throats after leading by 25 points, but they did not. The Australians might have smelled a rare instance of Kiwi vulnerability, and if so, they must try to exploit it much earlier rather than waiting for when the game is all but over.
The Wallabies have not started well in their games so far this year, something coach Dave Rennie and captain Michael Hooper are acutely aware of. If Australia get off to a fast start, it will be interesting to see how the All Blacks respond to chasing the game instead of being front-runners.
If the Wallabies lose, the Bledisloe Cup will remain in New Zealand hands for a 19th straight year. The most hackneyed phrase in Australian rugby journalism is the Wallabies have not beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since 1986, but those accursed words have had to be written yet again.
In another rather audacious comment, Kellaway suggested the pressure was on the All Blacks because the Kiwi players would not want to be first to lose at Eden Park since 1994 when they were stunned by France’s try from the end of the world. But the All Blacks might regard the fear of losing as motivation rather than pressure. How else do they get themselves up to beat the Wallabies year after year after year without becoming bored?
The Wallabies will need to improve markedly against an All Blacks side that is almost certain to play better than it did in the first Test. Rennie has made four changes to the Wallabies’ starting line-up with winger Marika Koroibete, blindside flanker Lachie Swinton, second-rower Matt Philip and inside-centre Matt To’omua coming into the run on side, but it is unclear whether selection alone will be enough to spring an historic upset.
Koroibete, who missed the first Test for disciplinary reasons, will provide the Wallabies with strike power; Swinton will give the side physical aggression; To’omua will offer passing skills in the midfield; and Philip has been brought in to improve the lineout. But the Wallabies will still only have two genuine lineout jumpers – Philip and second rower Darcy Swain – up against the best defensive lineout in world rugby.
It was the All Blacks’ ability to disrupt the Wallabies’ lineout that prevented the visitors from making a good start in the first Test and the All Blacks are bound to target the set-piece again, while Australia will most likely resort to non-competitive lineouts.
With the return of veteran halfback Nic White from injury, the Wallabies’ reserves bench actually looks stronger than last week’s. Can lighting strike twice? It is unlikely Wallabies five-eighth Noah Lolesio will land only 28% of his attempts at goal again, but if he is off target early, the kicking duties should be given to someone else. No team can leave 12 points on the field and hope to beat the All Blacks, especially at Eden Park.