Another year, another Bledisloe Cup success for the All Blacks, with the coveted trans-Tasman silverware locked away on New Zealand shores for yet another summer.
Their road to another chapter of glory over the Wallabies didn’t come without its twists and turns, though, so we look at some of the heroes and villains from the most recent edition of the Bledisloe Cup.
What an introduction into the test arena. There aren’t many players who have made such an impact so quickly in an All Blacks jersey, but Caleb Clarke isn’t your ordinary player.
A powerful debut cameo appearance off the bench in Bledisloe I was rewarded with a start the following week in Auckland when incumbent No. 11 George Bridge was ruled out for the remainder of the season through injury.
The Crusaders wing now has a tough job on his hands to reclaim his place in the starting side as Clarke was so good at Eden Park that comparisons were drawn between him and the great, late Jonah Lomu.
The 21-year-old beat defender after defender in front of his home crowd through pace and sheer physicality, something the All Blacks sure could have used in Brisbane over the weekend.
If Argentina have any chance at shocking the All Blacks in their final two tests of the year, doing a better job than the Wallabies at shutting down Clarke’s destructive attacking nature will be key to their success.
Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett and the dual playmaker partnership
Contrary to evidence shown throughout this series, fans in New Zealand will continue to debate who should be starting first five between Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, and whether the dual playmaker system actually works.
The performance of the former in Bledisloe III and the All Blacks’ unbeaten record against Australia this year when both players have started, however, should alleviate any concern about Ian Foster’s selection choices.
After succumbing to a 16-all draw in Wellington, it was Barrett who showed glimpses of magic after returning from a minor injury in Auckland during Bledisloe II.
His incisive running game in broken play was largely overshadowed by Caleb Clarke’s monstrous performance, but it was an integral aspect of New Zealand’s 27-7 victory and illustrated why he is highly rated as a fullback by the coaching staff.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 9, 2020
Then it was Mo’unga who put on a show in Sydney a fortnight later, scoring two tries (one of his tries came from a Barrett chip kick assist) and 23 points, assisting a try, running for over 120 metres, beating five defenders and making four line breaks.
It was a coming-of-age performance that took longer to come than what many would have liked, but it was an effort that shows exactly why Foster has persisted with deploying Mo’unga alongside Barrett in the starting lineup.
Mo’unga’s efforts in the record 43-5 victory earned him a rest for the Brisbane test, and we all know what happened there.
Without his partner in crime, Barrett underperformed, and while there are other factors that contributed to that as well, it wasn’t too dissimilar to how Mo’unga fared without the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year at the back in Wellington.
Compare that to the back-to-back victories in Bledisloe II and III that both were heavily involved in, and it’s clear to see how important those two and the dual playmaking system are to Foster’s side.
He may have only played about 25 minutes in the dead rubber match of the series, but the fact that Akira Ioane was there at all is something to behold.
Despite his glaringly enormous potential, questions over his commitment, work ethic and discipline both on and off the field prevented him from joining younger brother Rieko in the All Blacks set-up since he first burst onto the scene in 2015.
Akira’s international prospects hit rock bottom last year when then-head coach Steve Hansen publicly grilled the loose forward as he missed out on the World Cup squad, which sent Ioane into a dark headspace towards the end of 2019.
However, some stern words from father and former Samoa international Eddie Ioane propelled the 25-year-old to a mammoth Super Rugby campaign with the Blues.
So good was Ioane in every aspect of the game that had previously blocked his path to test match rugby that Foster had no choice but to call him up.
The Tokyo-born rookie – New Zealand’s first Japan-born All Black – was rewarded with an unlikely debut in Brisbane, where he again shone as one of the best forwards on the park before he was pulled from the field thanks to a teammate’s indiscretion.
View this post on Instagram
This surprised us, the overwhelming majority of you think the All Blacks should build experience in the final two tests against Argentina despite the Tri-Nations still being on the line in the latest @healthspan.elite fan poll. Is that the right call? ? #nzrugby #allblacks #lospumas #argentina #trinations #bledisloecup
One of only six Wallabies to start in every one of the four tests against the All Blacks, it’s fair to say Queensland No. 8 Harry Wilson has a bright future ahead of him.
Perhaps he wasn’t the star player of the Bledisloe Cup series for Australia, but the fact that he started every test, and should be in line to do the same against Argentina, as an international rookie speaks volumes about his ability and potential.
A key player for the Reds in their run to the Super Rugby AU grand final, the 20-year-old made his test debut in Bledisloe Cup I last month, and made himself a defensive presence throughout the series.
In the first two tests, in particular, he made a habit of targeting both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett with off the ball tackles to physically impose himself on the two playmakers.
It’s that sort of mongrel-like mentality and eagerness to stamp authority on proceedings that will help turn around a Wallabies forward pack that has earned a reputation as a soft playing group in recent times.
Don’t expect that to stay the same for as long as Wilson is around – which should be for a long time to come.
In all fairness, TJ Perenara didn’t really put a foot wrong in the first two Bledisloe Cup matches as he came on for brief cameo appearances in place of Aaron Smith.
Signs of wobbles began to emerge in Sydney, though, when a sloppy display of passing towards the end of the match was a far cry from the clean, crisp service Smith regularly whips up.
In a match that had already been won by a record margin, however, that proved insignificant in the scheme of things, and so Perenara was granted a rare test start for the dead rubber clash in Brisbane.
The Wallaby was shown a red card for a high tackle at Suncorp Stadium. pic.twitter.com/hfOZpcOVLu
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 9, 2020
Perhaps that might be his final start in a black jersey, against tier one nations at least, as a complete lack of composure, poor discipline, silly decision-making and simple errors cost his side dearly at Suncorp Stadium.
The 68-test veteran’s departure from the contest came far too late in the game, but even then the impetus brought by reserve halfback Brad Weber in the final four minutes was very noticeable compared to Perenara.
With a sabbatical stint in Japan looming on the horizon, his status as New Zealand’s second-choice halfback may come into question by the time he returns from the Top League.
It might be harsh to label Ofa Tuungafasi as a loser from this year’s Bledisloe Cup series given the red card he picked up for a dangerous tackle on Wallabies wing Tom Wright didn’t actually impact the result of the series.
In fact, this year has seen Tuungafasi emerge as arguably the best prop in New Zealand through his powerful, defence and strong scrummaging – both of which were key to the Blues’ success in Super Rugby.
That earned him a starting role for the All Blacks in all four of their tests against Australia, and in three of those, he put in good shifts to build on his stellar season.
Things turned to custard in Brisbane, though, as Tuungafasi was sent from the field as his shoulder connected with Wright’s chin in a tackle in the 23rd minute, putting his team under all sorts of pressure as they went on to lose 24-22.
Nic Berry’s decision to hand the 28-year-old New Zealand’s fifth red card in test history was polarising among fans and pundits, but in this day and age, it should be common knowledge that the head is sacrosanct.
No matter the intent, if you collide into someone else’s noggin, you’re as good as gone, and unfortunately for Tuungafasi, being the catalyst of a famous Wallabies win over the All Blacks is enough to place him on this list.
Another young Wallabies star in the making, let it be known that there is plenty to come from 20-year-old playmaker Noah Lolesio in the green-and-gold jersey in the years ahead.
He was an integral part of the Brumbies’ Super Rugby AU success from first-five, and is part of the emerging crop of talent coming out of last year’s Australian U20 side that looks destined for great things.
In spite of that, he suffered a dismal test debut after Wallabies boss Dave Rennie thrust him into the cauldron as his side’s starting No. 10 in Bledisloe Cup III.
Injuries to incumbent pivots James O’Connor and Matt To’omua forced the youngster into a difficult task of keeping the All Blacks at bay as they looked to wrap up the series at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.
What ensued was a 43-5 thrashing, with Lolesio at the forefront of the crushing defeat as he struggled to accustom himself on the international stage.
Caught out defensively and tactically, it was a bittersweet debut for Lolesio, who endured a torrid time against a rampant and vastly more experienced All Blacks side, although he did manage to bag his side’s only points with a try just after halftime.
New Wallabies wing Filipo Daugunu suffered a similar fate in Sydney a fortnight ago, as he was made to regret the overconfidence he showed in a press conference leading into the test earlier in the week.
A standout for the Reds over the past few seasons, the Fijian-born speedster made a point of how keen he was to smash fellow rookie Caleb Clarke and diminish his attacking threat after the latter had flourished in both Wellington and Auckland.
However, Daugunu was sin binned just four minutes into his third test match for dangerously clattering into Clarke in the air.
Upon his return, the All Blacks had opened the scoring through Karl Tu’inukuafe, and by the end of the half, the visitors were up 26-0 thanks to an inspirational showing by Richie Mo’unga.
Daugunu’s erratic performance didn’t help Australia’s cause as they fell to a 38-point hiding that ensured the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup for another year, and he was subsequently dropped from the starting squad for the Brisbane test a week later.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now