Australia vs. New Zealand: 6 Things We Learned
In the opening clash of this summer’s Rugby Championship and the first of two back-to-back Bledisloe Cup matches, New Zealand didn’t disappoint in living up to their favourites' tag.
The All Blacks were dominant at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, seeing out a memorable 47-29 triumph over Australia and setting themselves in good stead for the remainder of the tournament.
Last year, a 27-19 opening victory over the Wallabies started what would become a perfect 6-0 routing at the 2012 Rugby Championship; 12 months on, Steve Hansen’s side had almost amassed a similar scoreline at the halfway stage.
However, with five fixtures left, it’s still about just how the two teams react to this opening matchup, with plenty of lessons to be taken on board for both teams.
1. Aaron Cruden Is an Ample Replacement for Daniel Carter
Upon the announcement that Dan Carter had picked up a calf injury and would be absent for the first few weeks of The Rugby Championship, all New Zealanders will have felt that little bit of dourness around their title chances.
However, it would only take a matter of moments for one to remember that although the All Blacks may have temporarily lost one world-class fly-half, another quietly simmers in Hansen’s ranks.
A two-time Super Rugby winner and victor with the Chiefs just last month, Aaron Cruden lived up to the void he was filling in the All Blacks’ back line, contributing 20 points to the score.
As well as going over for a relatively simple charged down try, Cruden was accurate from the tee and provided a reliable platform in midfield.
Ma’a Monu received good ball from his No. 10 and New Zealand benefitted greatly as a result, with the masses quickly forgetting just who was missing from the lineup.
2. Matt Toomua Not Yet at the Races
Earlier this week, it was revealed that Matt Toomua would start at outside-half for the first game of the Ewen McKenzie era and not Quade Cooper, as many had thought at first.
Such a decision was met with mixed reaction; hope for the kind of mentality McKenzie perhaps looked to promote but also doubt in whether or not the youngster was actually up to the task.
In the end, it was the latter which seemed to win out. Toomua is clearly talented, but not just of the standard that the Wallabies would require if they’re to topple a worldly force like New Zealand.
Within minutes of being introduced, it was clear that Cooper gave more to the Australian side, but was brought on too late in the second period to make any real difference.
Next week, it’s highly probably that Cooper, the more experienced of the two, will earn his place back as a starter in the second leg of this year’s Bledisloe Cup series—and all for the better of this Wallabies side.
3. Richie McCaw as Influential as Ever
Having only just returned from a seven-month rugby sabbatical last month, there may have been that shred of doubt around Richie McCaw’s reintroduction on the international stage.
Thirty-two years old or not, the openside flanker put any such doubts to rest, maintaining his reputation as one of the finest back-rowers in world rugby.
Crossing over for the 20th test try of his career, McCaw became the first All Blacks forward to score 100 Test points and further cementing his status as one of the finest players ever to have donned the jersey.
Ferocious at the breakdown, strong when carrying the ball and as efficient as ever in defence, the veteran wouldn’t let you know he was the wrong side of 30 for even a second.
4. McKenzie Enduring Teething Problems
As can be the case with any changing of the guard, Ewen McKenzie’s life as Australia head coach didn’t get off to the start he may have desired.
After such a crushing loss, though, there can be no end to the amount of lessons the Wallabies helmsman will have learned about not just his side’s strengths and weaknesses, but his own.
One major positive for Saturday’s hosts, however, is that they did manage to put 29 points on the reigning world champions thanks to a few moments of individual brilliance.
Adam Ashley-Cooper’s line breaks, coupled with Jesse Mogg’s speed, was amongst other dynamic performances from Will Genia and James O’Connor that ultimately resulted in more than a few reasons for consolation.
McKenzie will be able to take those promising instances and eventually mould it into a side capable of challenging the rest of the world’s giants, but it may not come straight away.
5. All Blacks Remain Firm Favourites
New Zealand came into this tournament as the odds-on team to emerge triumphant at the other end and claim two Rugby Championships from two.
Eighty minutes later, the All Blacks are in even better shape to go and do what the majority will have expected them to earlier this week.
Having put 47 points over a team that the British and Irish Lions couldn’t with three attempts this summer, it would seem the world champions’ attack is in as good a shape as ever, but the defence could perhaps do with some shoring up.
With that in mind, however, as long as silverware is the end result, Hansen and his men will perhaps care little for just how they arrive at the destination.
6. A Tale of Two Smiths
Two of the standout performers during the All Blacks’ victory over the Wallabies, Ben Smith and Conrad Smith contributed 20 points between them in Sydney, the former grabbing 15 of those in a hat-trick performance.
While Conrad’s performance was more about creation, Ben finished a great deal of what was afforded to him, homing in on what little the Australia defence had to offer the winger with very clinical nature.
Thanks to injuries, Hansen’s squad doesn’t run quite as deep as the New Zealand head coach may have liked heading into this tournament, but is fortunate that he has such a talented starting setup to rely upon.
As long as the pair can stay fit over the coming weeks, the All Blacks have an extremely threatening set of finishers lined up alongside Julian Savea and Israel Dagg, a batch of talent that only the best in the world can boast.