New Zealand vs. Australia: 6 Things We Learned
In the latest assertion of their world dominance, New Zealand claimed a third successive victory over Australia at Dunedin Park just to rub salt in the wound of the Bledisloe Cup series they'd already claimed this year.
Although the result can also be put down to a certain profligacy from the Wallabies, the All Blacks were nonetheless impressive in their most recent outing, showing all the finer points of the side that won a second consecutive Rugby Championship earlier this month.
While there was little else other than pride on the line, the meeting in New Zealand showed certain elements that both teams can learn from.
1. The Two Aarons Showing More Fluid Motion
Considering they haven’t had a great deal of time playing alongside one another, it’s understandable that Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden might find some teething problems in the absence of the injured Dan Carter.
However, it’s not a long-term excuse for a nation of New Zealand’s quality to have anything other than an exceptional 9/10 relationship, which the halfback pairing are starting to find.
As ever, Steve Hansen’s backs were in reliable form but that came largely from the fast ball that was so frequently seen between Smith and Cruden, the latter posing a constant running threat.
The Chiefs No. 10 eventually got his reward when he crossed over for a try late in the first-half, but it was the supply with which Smith and Cruden supplied those outside them that was most promising.
2. Sam Cane Can Be Successor to the McCaw Throne
Not for the first time in recent weeks, Richie McCaw was forced to pull out of Saturday’s match through injury, replaced by Sam Cane.
Just 21 years of age, the Chiefs starlet once again proved against the Wallabies that he’s as good a candidate as any to eventually replace the ageing McCaw, whenever he does decide eventually to hang up his boots.
Cane was as present across the pitch as any other All Black in the first-half, making no less than eight tackles in the first period and making a general nuisance of himself in defence.
However, the youngster proved that he can indeed be an offensive presence to be reckoned with, carrying for 20 metres in the first period and being rewarded with a 29th-minute try.
It will be a sad day when McCaw does decide to call it a day, but New Zealand can rest easy knowing they’ve got a hugely impressive figure ready to step in.
3. McKenzie’s Back Line Finding Its Feet
The most problematic part of Ewen McKenzie’s Wallaby conundrum has been crafting his most effective back line, with the pack taking care of itself.
After trying Matt Toomua out in the No. 10 jersey during the Rugby Championship, the Australian head coach seems to have settled on Quade Cooper as his fly-half of choice.
However, the most encouraging sign from Dunedin was Toomua’s production rate at inside centre, now relieved of some of the responsibilities that can come with playing at 10.
In a way, Christian Lealiifano’s injury has been a good thing that’s allowed Toomua to show his talent in the centres, a glimpse of which we captured in Round 6 of the Rugby Championship against Argentina.
The Brumbies youngster eventually prospered as a result of his environment, too, grabbing his first Test try in the amber and gold.
Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Tevita Kuridrani all had their impressive moments against New Zealand, with the latter registering particularly good statistics, carrying for more than 90 metres, beating three defenders and crossing over for a try in the second period.
4. Conrad Not the Only Dangerous Smith at Outside Centre
Already one of the standout finishers in world rugby thanks to his scoring exploits at the Rugby Championship, Ben Smith showed himself to be a much more versatile creature against Australia.
With namesake Conrad Smith missing, it was Ben Smith who filled in for the first time at outside centre and while he didn’t pose the same threat on the whitewash himself, the 27-year-old certainly helped others do so.
Ben Smith showed a refreshing sense of maturity in his No. 13 role, not seemingly fussed with the glamorous aspects but altogether more concentrated on ensuring the team result was achieved.
The speedster didn't miss a tackle in his 72-minute display and carried for 37 metres, but it was his playmaking ability that stood out most.
5. This Is the Best All Blacks Back Line Ever Seen
Through the decades, New Zealand has produced its fair share of star-studded back lines, so to say its current incarnation is the best ever is an almighty claim to make.
However, it’s very possible that Hansen’s setup right now would beat past line-ups were they to meet in head-to-head competition.
Between Ma’a Nonu, Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Ben and Conrad Smith, Aaron Smith and the thriving selection of fine fly-halves at his disposal, there isn’t any noticeable weak point in Hansen’s backs.
Savea made a particularly effective contribution, once again excelling from the left wing, carrying for 90 metres, the second-highest amount of any player on Saturday.
With Carter out, the All Blacks can call upon Cruden as a more established No. 10 or put their faith in the rising star of Beauden Barrett with Crusaders’ Tom Taylor another option in the role.
Were they to be another back line to rival this current batch of stars, it would be the 1990s/2000s line-up that included the likes of Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko, Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens along with others.
But even they would have a hard time beating Saturday’s side.
6. New Zealand Just as Dangerous Without the Ball
In the first half of this weekend’s Dunedin clash, New Zealand controlled less than 40 percent of possession, yet went in at the break with a 30-19 lead.
It’s no secret that a large part of the All Blacks’ strength lies in fast, ferocious defence, forcing the opposition into errors before hitting them on the counter.
Against Australia, this aspect of the World Cup title holders’ arsenal was as evident as it’s ever been, with flowing hands through the back line often a mesmerising thing to watch from the home side.
This was perhaps best shown in Cruden’s try just before half-time, where Aaron Smith directed his backs expertly from the left touchline to the right in just a handful of passes before a Liam Messam break opened the necessary space for Cruden to glide over.
As of yet this year, no team is consistently to exhibit a tactic that’s worked against Hansen’s men for a full 80 minutes, although South Africa came close to doing so at Ellis Park several weeks ago.
Let them have possession and a team welcomes their own demise. Kick for territory and New Zealand eventually whittle you down. Try and keep the ball away from them, the All Blacks always seem to find a way of reclaiming it.