Swap the head coaches around and who wins this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup clash at Eden Park?
Sunday’s 16-16 stalemate at Sky Stadium threw up more questions than answers for anxious All Blacks fans. Eager to see how things stand now Ian Foster’s in charge, New Zealand’s supporters’ worst fears were just about realised.
Rightly or wrongly, the assumption has always been that there is potential for a decline in fortunes under Foster and Sunday’s performance did nothing to dispel that.
Looking at things dispassionately, you would imagine that Australia can’t play a great deal better than they did in Wellington, whereas the All Blacks should improve. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling New Zealand would improve a good deal more if they had the Wallabies’ Dave Rennie as head coach.
Far from hoping for an emphatic response from the All Blacks this week; under Rennie fans would feel certain it was on its way.
As impressive as Australia’s play was at Sky Stadium, so was Rennie’s post-match press conference.
Some men in his position would have crowed, but not him. No, he simply pointed out that the Wallabies had walloped the All Blacks in Perth last year, only to rock up to Eden Park and cop a 36-0 hiding.
It was an interesting point for Rennie to reference.
That 47-26 win by Australia at Optus Stadium was extraordinary. The Wallabies were so, so much better than the All Blacks that night, putting in a genuine 10 out of 10 performance.
It was a tantalising glimpse at the talent levels within Australia’s side, but ultimately unsustainable. The embarrassed All Blacks responded in inevitable fashion and the Wallabies went on to exit the subsequent Rugby World Cup at the quarterfinal stage.
What appealed about Sunday’s effort at Sky Stadium was that it looked repeatable.
Australia were energetic and abrasive and put New Zealand under pressure with and without the ball. Their set pieces were pretty steady and there was a general accuracy and endeavour about their rugby.
Some have suggested the Wallabies achieved some kind of moral victory, but that’s just cobblers. Games come in three shapes and sizes: wins, losses and draws and morals don’t come into it.
The one main area where Rennie was displeased with Australia’s effort was at the breakdown. Luckily, as evidenced by his years at the Chiefs, the breakdown is precisely where Rennie-coached sides excel, so you don’t imagine he’ll be dissatisfied for long.
What Rennie has already shown he has the potential to do for this side, is narrow the gap between their best performance and their worst. That’s why the unprompted mention of the first two games of last year’s Bledisloe Cup series was so telling.
It’s not good enough to be great one week and garbage the next and that’ll be Rennie’s challenge. The odd 10 out of 10 performance is fine, so long as it’s not followed by two out of 10.
You’d say the Wallabies gave us a solid seven at Sky Stadium and that’s the standard they now need to aspire to week after week.
For the All Blacks, it was only five out of 10 stuff. Which, with the right man in charge, might be easily fixed. With Foster, though, there’s a sense that this could be the team’s level.
They’ll have good days, of course they will. There’s too much talent there for them not to.
But for all Richie Mo’unga’s success at Super Rugby level, he’s yet to take command of the test stage. New Zealand’s tight forwards were only okay on Sunday and the loose forward mix looked a little wrong until Hoskins Sotutu came on.
Rieko Ioane has a bit to learn about defending in midfield and surely we’ve seen enough to know that Jordie Barrett is a very fine fullback, but only average on the wing?
Picking a better-balanced team would be the first area where the All Blacks could improve and then it’s about asserting themselves.
Australia were allowed to dictate terms in Wellington and probably a little unlucky not to win. Their job is to now try and match that intensity this Sunday.
Of the two teams, the All Blacks have the most improvement. The question that remains is: do they have the right coaching group to coax the improvement out of them?
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