New Zealand vs Australia: Winners and Losers
In a game with no silverware at stake, we got to see both New Zealand and Australia cut loose a little under the roof in Dunedin.
It was an entertaining way to round off a full-blooded few weeks of rugby between the big guns of the southern hemisphere, with a few individuals earning praise, while some others didn't do themselves many favours.
Loser: Adam Ashley-Cooper
Yes, he scored, yes, he is still a class act, but using Adam Ashley-Cooper on the wing is a waste.
You can understand Ewen McKenzie’s approach to his conundrum. Israel Folau is a potent attacking weapon from full-back and there are other specialist wings and centres who, with time, look capable of great things for Australia. Matt Toomua looked handy today at No. 12 and Tevita Kuridrani played well.
He also knows he needs his best player on the pitch, which is why Ashley-Cooper is in the side because he is certainly one of the best.
But a player of Ashley-Cooper’s intelligence and experience should be used to bring these other players on rather than operating on the periphery as a wing.
Losers: The Wallaby Pack at Restart Time
Aaron Cruden seems to be able repeatedly to execute the perfect kick-off, hanging the ball high in the air, giving his chasing forwards the chance to get under it and compete.
But in the first-half, it was like watching the All Blacks take candy from a baby.
Australia's catchers were isolated, unsupported and unable to claim restart after restart, allowing the opponents to out-jump them at will and either catch the ball or bat it back their way, setting up an attack in a threatening field position.
Lacking cohesion in one of the key points at which possession can be won and lost in a game is unacceptable at this level, and Ewen McKenzie needs to sort that out before Australia come north.
Winner: Ben Smith
Smith proved that he is capable of replacing his namesake, Conrad, when the time comes to hand over the No. 13 jersey.
He is assured, skilled, has a turn of pace that made him so dangerous as a wing during the Rugby Championship and can create space for other more powerful strike runners such as Julian Savea and his mate inside him, Ma’a Nonu.
New Zealand have unearthed another multi-skilled operator who makes the hard things look effortless.
It must make England coach Stuart Lancaster ache that he has such trouble finding the right blend at 12 and 13 when the All Blacks can churn out such quality operators on a consistent basis.
Winner: Israel Dagg
Dagg's display throughout was what we have come to expect from this Rolls-Royce of a full-back, even after a quiet Rugby Championship by his standards.
But for one moment and one moment only, Dagg makes this list.
Australia had started well and Quade Cooper had put points on the board. But in their first serious foray deep into Wallaby territory, the deep-lying Dagg spotted his chance and pounced like a jungle cat on its prey.
Australia hooker Stephen Moore had clumsily found himself defending a rather wide blindside channel and as the ball was recycled, Dagg sensed the chance, came screaming across the field to take the ball from Aaron Cruden and was past the unfortunate Moore before he knew what had happened.
In a heartbeat, Dagg had created a two-on-one with Julian Savea outside him and Adam Ashley-Cooper with no option but to go for Dagg.
With the wing committed, Dagg’s simple pass was all it took for Savea to skate home. Fast, clinical, deadly.
Winner: Steve Hansen
It seems obvious to heap plaudits on the coach of the most talented side in the world when they have just completed their 10th straight win.
But credit is due to Steve Hansen for the way he has evolved this side since its 2011 World Cup win. Think of England and South Africa, the two previous tournament winners, and their relative slumps after lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Hansen has avoided that by balancing the transition between old and new generations perfectly.
Richie McCaw was given time away to recharge his batteries and came back better than ever, but his injuries seem to be signposting the fact that he is reaching the end of a great career.
Hansen sensibly brought Sam Cane on and he now seems ready to assume McCaw’s mantle at No. 7 when the time comes.
The same can be said for Hansen’s development of Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick and the awesome Kieran Read, who is a dead cert to be the next full-time captain.
Hansen’s stock has never been higher.
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