Since we all seem to be moving from Reality to Memeland, I’m betting I’m not the only one who’s noticed the accelerating trend in exaggeration.
It’s not just the rise of climate pseudoscience, Boris Johnson being caricatured as a threat to security or detention centres being called concentration camps. It manifests in all forms of over-reaction, not least in water cooler talk about sporting results. After the horror show in Perth I lost count of the people fretting about All Blacks’ chances of losing the World Cup, which haven’t changed, and noticed an alarming spike in the downright panicky talking about Australia actually winning it, the chances of which also remain unchanged.
When you’re part of the greatest sporting legacy of all time and you’ve been smoked by your closest rivals, acute humiliation is a powerful motivator. Throw in the fortress of Eden Park as venue for the return match with our most precious trophy on the line and you have a perfect recipe for disproportionate rebound.
There’s no way the All Blacks are 36 points better than the Wallabies (anyone holding such a view would have a very hard time explaining a certain result from seven days earlier) but when everything goes right for the All Blacks there isn’t a team in world rugby who isn’t in danger of being thrashed in such a manner.
The selectors were obliged to bring in lock Patrick Tuipulotu and midfielder Sonny Bill Williams after Scott Barrett’s red card and an injury to Jack Goodhue, but they also replaced tighthead Owen Franks with Nepo Laulala and dropped under-performing wings Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane in favour of Sevu Reece and George Bridge.
An early sign of things to come came at the first scrum engagement, when the All Blacks rolled the Wallabies front row with Laulala wearing Scott Sio like a hood ornament, but aside from this one-sided engagement there was little evidence of anything untoward as the two sides wrestled their way to a 3-0 scoreline at the 29 minute mark. Christian Leali’ifano had missed two easy penalties, Beauden Barrett had missed a long range droppie and if anything it was the Wallabies who looked to be making better use of the ball.
But then Bridge spot-tackling Kurtley Beale on halfway forced a handling error, first five Richie Mo’unga swooped to pick up the loose ball and his sixty yard footrace was one-sided with all the Wallabies having to turn and chase in vain.
Two minutes later Leali’ifano hoofed an aimless kick upfield and appeared to be the only Australian chasing it up, so Barrett took off left and hit Bridge on the chest with a nice long pass he could really time his run onto. Wing Rees Hodge was obliged to cover Anton Lienert-Brown outside him, so at full cry Bridge bitchmade flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to rip the lazy defence in two. Halfback Aaron Smith joined Lienert-Brown in support and was the man Bridge chose as receiver, Beale having no chance to stop all three men coming at him.
After the tight first half hour the brief but lethal spell had seemingly come out of nowhere, a stark reminder of All Black strike power at its most concentrated. It probably would have ended all Australian hopes then and there if hooker Dane Coles hadn’t immediately gotten himself yellow-carded for a completely retarded act of ill discipline.
Pressing hard on the Wallabies line and with them visibly quailing, Coles chose to grab halfback Nic White by the throat and crotch from the Australian side of a ruck and hurl him somersaulting over his shoulder, right in front of the touch judge. Even in a club match between rival tribes in Murupara it would have been considered thuggish so in the context of a must-win test, after having been warned for a lesser infringement literally at the previous ruck, it was an act of galactic stupidity.
The scene only got more distasteful as officials weighed up the amount of justice required and viewers were forced to endure three revolting replays of Coles’ thumb coming way too close to violating the sanctity of White’s fundament. I was astounded when Jaco Peyper chose yellow rather than red.
Trotting from the field muttering to himself and shaking his head to make it even worse, as if somehow he thought he’d been hard done by, I cursed him for a fool and prayed it wasn’t going to be a match-turning moment. No one would suggest that Barrett’s sending off at the same stage of last week’s test was the only thing which cost the All Blacks that game, but it sure as hell didn’t help.
If Coles had any self awareness whatsoever he’d realize his offence was ten times worse than Barrett’s and it’s only through a combination of dumb luck and rugby’s sissy new refereeing guidelines that it only had the All Blacks a man down for ten minutes. Every fan out there knows Barrett’s reflex action in Perth, partly in self-preservation and partly caused by Michael Hooper’s contact height, by comparison was worth ten minutes at best and if referees aren’t going to come down more harshly on acts which genuinely bring the game into disrepute, while having no mercy on things like mid-air collisions, they will start to undermine rugby’s most important component - bravery.
It actually seemed to make the fourteen remaining All Blacks even more focused on the task at hand. The Crusaders among them probably just shrugged. They might suspect their Hurricanes team-mates of an ingrained problem with authority, so when the campfire talk all week has been about showing what the black jersey means they’re probably just hoping one of them doesn’t get too keyed up and blow a fuse on game day.
Luckily the remaining two Hurricanes at that stage, Barrett and flanker Ardie Savea, are either atypical or non-presenting. Both were having blinders. Savea was in the thick of things all over the park as usual, throwing himself ferociously into contact and leaving yellow jerseys trampled behind him with almost every carry.
He was also packing down on the back of the scrum even though wearing number six, so he didn’t have to switch when Tuipulotu made way for replacement hooker Codie Taylor at the next scrum and Kieran Read moved to lock.
This scrum gave the most nervous spectators another reassuring signal that the ship was firmly righted from last week’s wreck. Even in a seven against eight contest, Laulala and Taylor made short work of the Wallabies front row. There was a distinct note of relief in the roar from an educated crowd.
And after halftime the All Blacks went on with the job. Williams crashed into the gang tackle of Samu Kerevi and Adam Coleman on the Wallabies line, forcing the ball and in the process demonstrating that even Australia’s best defender and the biggest man on the field couldn’t combine to stop him.
Williams still has his detractors but this kind of intimidating physical strength is his real calling card. It gives him the ability to offload with disdain when he isn’t choosing to beat defenders on his own. It’s also the kind of thing which commands respect at this level and no other All Black in recent memory has played over fifty tests without ever missing a one-on-one tackle.
Reece got the next try chasing a grubber behind the rush defence, getting his boot to it first and maintaining his balance to outrace the cover. Bridge finished off a fifth by wrong-footing some hastily assembled defence in the corner after Savea tackled and stole possession from an isolated Kerevi.
All Blacks 36 Wallabies 0
Every point scored, especially after Coles’ brain fart, was another dagger to the Wallabies’ heart. Plenty of realistic hopes have been dashed by the All Blacks on Eden Park but to blank their opponents 36-0 a week after that record-breaking loss was particularly satisfying. Real steel was back in the All Blacks’ defence and that was what most pleased purists like myself. The locks and loose forwards were all outstanding.
Losing so badly in Perth clearly stung the All Blacks into a memorably ruthless performance but now is a perfect time to put such a victory in proper context. Losses at World Cups can only be used as motivation in subsequent seasons because there’s never been a team to recover from one and win the tournament in question.