New Zealand and Australia warmed up for their respective end of year tours with a third and final Bledisloe Cup clash in Dunedin. The All Blacks claimed a 41-33 victory over their fierce rivals in a clash that provided plenty of food for thought for those sides set to play host to the southern hemisphere giants in the coming weeks.
No such thing as a dead rubber
The sizeable Bledisloe Cup was already safely locked up in the All Blacks’ bulging trophy cabinet thanks to their victories in Sydney and Wellington but there is no such thing as a dead rubber as far as these two old foes are concerned. They produced seven tries between them during a thrilling contest at a packed out Forsyth-Barr Stadium thanks to some brilliantly positive rugby – helped no-end by a roof that shut out the elements and ensured that two sides that had come to play were able to put on a show. The desire and hunger was perhaps most evident in the lung-busting passage of play following the final hooter. They had already gone toe-to-toe for 80 gruelling minutes and the result was beyond doubt but neither side wanted to stop playing during an end-to-end exchange punctuated by several turnovers. That kind of hunger and the outstanding skill level at that stage of the game should serve as a warning to all those set to cross their path in November.
Folau is flying
Despite yet another defeat, Australia remain on an upward curve thanks to a heartening display with an electrifying Israel Folau at its heart. It is easy to forget that the former rugby league star has less than a year’s experience in union but he can already lay claim to be one of the stars of the 15-man code. Fresh from a hat-trick in the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship romp again Argentina, Folau offered yet another example of his outstanding ability. His aerial game is quite simply superb, honed during his one-season spell in Aussie Rules in 2012, and we can expect the high ball to remain a key part of the Wallabies’ armoury when they venture north with England at Twickenham their first stop. But that is just one part of his eye-catching all-round game and given his clear defence-breaking ability, the Wallabies are arguably guilty of not using him enough. His feet are just as rapid as his recent development and with his confidence also rocketing he is set to demand to be a more central figure in attack. In this kind of form he will blaze a trail through Europe.
All Blacks march on
The All Blacks’ 10th straight victory of the year was yet another masterclass. They have raised the bar throughout this year and inspired awe once again in Dunedin in despatching the Wallabies. The skill levels from 1 to 15 are outrageously good – a fact perhaps best illustrated by Sam Cane’s first half try that was set-up by an Aaron Cruden cross-kick that splintered the Wallabies’ defence. But Kieran Read’s second half try was equally impressive with some beautifully simple passing from Brodie Retallick, Cruden and Ma’a Nonu carving the opening for Read to score. It may not have been the most dazzling score they have conjured this year but in terms of understanding, between forwards and backs, and execution it was a masterpiece. The fact they make it look so simple is a credit to their dedication on the training paddock. There is hope for the rest of the world as they are not faultless and sustained pressure from the Wallabies – just as it did for South Africa earlier this month – brought reward. But the sight of Julian Savea castigating himself after his mis-timed pass led to a try for Australia’s Matt Toomua underlined the high standards the All Blacks set for themselves.
Cooper silences the boo boys
Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper took a significant step in his quest to restore his reputation as one of the world’s best playmakers with an excellent display as the boos rained down on him in Dunedin. This was a more controlled and arguably more mature performance from Cooper that repaid the faith of coach, Ewen McKenzie and boosted his chances of making the No.10 shirt his own. We were still treated to the odd outrageous pass, dummy and sidestep but it did not border on reckless as it has done in the past. There was also one wild pass when a simpler option appeared to be the more sensible approach but that is not Quade’s way and you can accept that when his contribution in terms of game-management, distribution, defence and kicking – he slotted seven from seven including a drop goal – is exemplary. Both the success of the Wallabies and Cooper himself rests on his ability to strike the right balance between his natural creative instincts and his duties to the team and it appears that message is getting through.
There are many things to admire about the All Blacks including the unrivalled consistency, the skill levels, the ability to execute under pressure and the devotion to ‘total rugby’ – but arguably it is their strength in depth that their rivals envy the most. The absence of someone of the stature of Richie McCaw would serve as a significant body blow to most sides but not the All Blacks who absorb the loss without breaking stride. Sam Cane delivered the kind of industry and influence at openside that has made McCaw a near-permanent fixture for the last decade or so while No.8 Kieran Read offered just the latest reminder that he can offer the same kind of assurance and inspirational leadership as his back-row counterpart. But this rich vein of talent extends far beyond one position or role with every new face not only well aware of the expectation that comes with the shirt but also equipped to do it proud. You sense Wallabies star Israel Folau would be just another All Black we’re his loyalties on the other side of the Tasman.
How impressive are this All Blacks team? Is there a side in the world that can get close to them?