No more boomer-tier bleating about how All Black lock Scott Barrett shouldn’t have been red-carded in Perth by Jerome Garces, please.
The real problem isn’t referees, not when All Blacks discipline has been slipping for some time. Eventually a high enough penalty count will make for many such cases.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper was having a blinder, a handling error away from making the Wallabies’ winning margin even bigger. The All Blacks have been dominating the Wallabies for years, making his attempts to get under their skin much easier to ignore, even while players have been placing themselves in the referees’ hands regularly. Someone surrendering to temptation and cheap-shotting Hooper was always a likely scenario when the shoe was on the other foot.
Ardie Savea had already given away a silly penalty by shoving the back of his head. Ill discipline has been creeping into the All Blacks ever since the retirement of Richie McCaw.
Other nations’ complaints about McCaw’s cunning were more frequent than ours against Hooper because we were usually focused on being gracious victors. Failing to acknowledge the stupidity of Barrett’s shoulder charge is one thing. If we fail to put it in the context of a record-breaking defeat it’s just downright churlish.
Forget the scales of justice being weighted against New Zealand. Forget RG Snyman escaping punishment when he dislocated Brodie Retallick’s shoulder by illegally entering a ruck in Johannesburg. Even when referees see black jerseys offending first and miss obvious gamesmanship by the opposition, any focus on that will ring embarrassingly hollow if the trophy cabinet gets emptied in a single calendar year.
Lack of depth is no excuse, but going into Perth without Retallick was a problem to begin with and his insane skills weren’t what we missed most. He is one of our most important exemplars where discipline is concerned. Losing his replacement on the stroke of half-time just made it worse. Regular locking partner Sam Whitelock looked tired already.
When the heat is on and you’re huddled under the goalposts, he is one of those hard-asses who’ll do the necessary growling when Kieran Read is relentlessly urging youngsters to look at the positives, but not when the All Blacks are playing catch-up and Whitelock is out of oxygen, run off his colossal feet by a bunch of Australians with their tails up.
As for the game itself, an all-Crusaders second row wasn’t the All Black combination being looked at with most suspicion beforehand. Everyone thought the current twin playmaker strategy would be ditched after its failure to break down the Springboks. The All Blacks have never lacked playmakers on the park, it seemed bloody-minded to insist on playing the world’s best first five at fullback and therefore needing once again to move the world’s best fullback to the wing... in effect just a convoluted way to sideline Ben Smith, one of our proven playmakers.
Such experimentation at the back isn’t quite so risky when the tight five is steady. When you’re missing the world’s best lock and intent on blooding half of Polynesia in your front row off the bench it looks positively cavalier, let alone when you’re chopping and changing halfbacks and blind to the fact that your number eight is short of a gallop.
Even when relying on inexperienced squad members the All Blacks seldom underperform with ball in hand, but then of course new combinations are most vulnerable on defence. A dreadful missed tackle count was the worst of many weaknesses exposed in Perth as the Wallabies broke down the All Blacks’ structure.
Not that Ben Smith could do anything about recalled centre James O’Connor’s brilliant wrap-around pass to put Rhys Hodge away for the opening try, but there were no midfielders left to stop the wing as he raced off to score because they’d all rushed up on a Christian Leali’ifano pass, leaving the backfield unguarded. One of them, the normally lethal Anton Lienert-Brown, was so intent on shutting down the attack that the pass from Leali’ifano went straight to him, but caught him unawares and he couldn’t hold it.
The All Blacks replied well, Lienert-Brown scoring when his partner Jack Goodhue grubbered behind the Wallabies’ line and everyone else racing to the ball tripped over each other. They even briefly took the lead when hooker Dane Coles shucked prop Allan Alaalatoa, Aaron Smith wrong-footed Hodge and Rieko Ioane was on hand to celebrate finally receiving the ball with the goal-line in front of him after ten long months’ wait.
But then with the Wallabies hot on attack in the shadow of half-time, Barrett’s shoulder struck an already-falling Hooper and the game changed. Applying the letter of the law (Barrett making direct contact with force to the head or neck in a no-arms tackle) Garces had little choice but to send him off. After the break it was a seamless change from melodrama to horror show as the Wallabies clinically showed up the 14-man All Blacks with two quick tries.
First, defending a tight blind alone Ben Smith tried to intercept a ball that Rory Arnold was juggling, forgetting the lock’s arms were six inches longer. Arnold regathered and passed to flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto with the line wide open.
Then left wing Marika Koroibete picked up and went blind from a ruck on halfway, his path clear because prop Owen Franks and replacement centre Ngani Laumape had left that fringe untended. He was tackled by Ioane but offloaded to Samu Kerevi who, aside from being pound-for-pound the best attacking midfielder in world rugby at the moment, already had fond memories from recent tests of trampling the only two players remaining in front of him, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.
Once again he made short work of them, swatting away Smith with disdain and treating Barrett much as an Israeli tank would a rock-throwing Palestinian teenager. The cover arrived but halfback Nic White was on hand to score.
Barrett partially made up for this ignominy by side-stepping Leali’ifano and Salakaia-Loto, bringing the All Blacks back to within seven points, but horror shows often toy with the audience by saving the real gore for last.
Immediately the All Blacks missed more tackles and found themselves defending desperately, the Wallabies patiently waiting for their one-man advantage to deliver an opportunity, but few suspected it would materialize as a gaping hole right between the goalposts.
The quick-learning Koroibete was so eager for another example of negligence around the ruck fringes to exploit that he found himself forty yards out of position, and his instincts were flawless. With the Wallabies seven phases into a goal-line assault, no fewer than three All Black replacements decided to switch sides and leave a yawning gap between ruck and goalpost padding. Halfback TJ Perenara, prop Atu Moli and hooker Codie Taylor trotted left, all perhaps assuming Read would be quicker off the deck from the previous phase. The result was like a jackboot to the nutsack of the All Blacks’ dignity as Koroibete simply picked up and dived over.
A chill went down my spine. I’ve seen the All Blacks concede tries in tough situations before but this was different. They looked completely ragged, exhausted at best and panicky at worst.
Six minutes later, in exactly the same desperate field position after missing tackles again, O’Connor spotted an entire half of the goal line defended by a single man and swung the ball to Hodge who swished past Ioane for the easiest of seven pointers.
It was getting ugly.
Laumape raced into a gap to score from the kickoff, but in horror movie terms that was like a particularly vicious director allowing the family pet to survive the carnage only to be eaten by zombies as the credits roll. Wallabies fullback Kurtley Beale had the final say, waltzing between Read and reserve prop Angus Ta’avao to break the record for biggest ever defeat of the All Blacks.
Wallabies 47 All Blacks 26
For a few hours the most delusional Australians entertained the thought of winning the Rugby Championship via a Pumas victory over the Springboks in Salta.
If Argentina had simply fielded the Jaguares coached by Gonzalo Quesada they might have stood a chance. Instead we saw the usual godawful waste of talent as the Pumas rolled over, disappointing the locals and failing to satisfy the national appetite for contact sport so stimulated during Super Rugby.
Like the All Blacks the Springboks played part of the game with only fourteen men, halfback Faff de Clerk being sin-binned, but it wasn’t an issue to a team with the brass ring in their sights. They rebuffed every Pumas attack without once looking out of sorts, while Handre Pollard ran a masterclass in kicking, passing and running at the appropriate times, delighting the South African fans.
I imagine many New Zealanders who got up to watch were a little wistful like me... remembering a time, very recently in fact, when the All Black number ten getting regular front foot ball would make comedy out of inferior opposition instead of turning them into vengeful monsters, or an outnumbered band of brothers could produce memorable drama by prevailing against the odds.