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Was the All Blacks' narrow victory in Melbourne a step forwards?

By Tom Vinicombe
Sam Cane. (Photo by William West/AFP via Getty Images)

The All Blacks showed plenty of composure in the final moments of their Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

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They had to do it with a bit of a mix-and-match of a backline, too, with both David Havili and Quinn Tupaea out of commission and Jordie Barrett operating in the No 12 jersey.

We’ve seen various All Blacks sides over the past decade fail to capitalise in similar situations but on Thursday night, the team managed to get points on the board when they needed them most – even if it did take an absurd set of circumstances to get them over the line.

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Referee Mathieu Raynal ultimately made the correct call to punish the Wallabies for time-wasting at the end of the match but make no mistake, without his timely intervention, it’s incredibly unlikely the All Blacks would have snuck away with a win and we would now once again be running the rule over an All Blacks side that had failed to nab back-to-back to victories and fallen to their fifth defeat of the season.

Players and pundits alike have expressed dissatisfaction that at the end of an excellent game of rugby, all that anyone seems to be talking about is the referee but All Blacks coach Ian Foster will be over the moon that a relatively unimpressive performance from his charges has been somewhat overlooked thanks to Raynal’s ruling – not to mention Darcy Swain’s unforgivable clean out on Tupaea.

The All Blacks came out of the blocks with great ambition and when they were able to get their hands on the ball, they managed to build some ascendency over their trans-Tasman rivals. When Samisoni Taukei’aho crashed over for the opening try and then Richie Mo’unga added five points off the boot to give NZ a 10-0 lead, that should have been the end of the contest.

But the All Blacks couldn’t capitalise. They blew numerous chances to either score points or, at the very least, get themselves in the position to score points.

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When Caleb Clarke burst onto a Hoskins Sotutu pass off the back of a lineout in the 36th minute, the young winger couldn’t link up with any support and a chance went begging. Moments later, Taukei’aho lost the ball over the line from a driving maul and then to cap off the five minutes of terror, a poor pass from Rieko Ioane saw the All Blacks fail to take advantage of an overlap inside the Wallabies 22 and another try was blown.

The positive side, of course, is that the All Blacks are clearly now starting to create chances – something they’ve struggled with in recent times. Of course, two of the opportunities above did only eventuate when Australia were down to 13 men. In fact, 21 of the All Blacks’ 39 points were scored when they were playing with extra bodies.

The bigger issues for the side were on defence, with the Wallabies chewing through metres close to the ruck with relative ease. That was especially concerning, given it’s the exact way the All Blacks expected their opposition to attack. Out wide, both Clarke and Will Jordan struggled when asked to defend one-on-one while gaps also opened up throughout the backline (although some of that could be accredited to the mid-game changes forced upon the All Blacks due to injuries).

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The forwards also found themselves struggling at times at the set-piece, with both the scrum and the lineout maul defence taking a backwards step. In the case of the issues at scrum time, relative newcomers Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax will benefit from being put under the pump by the considerably more experienced duo of James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa but it also shows that you can’t build a new front row overnight and the All Blacks are in a race against time to produce a powerful, consistent unit in advance of next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Ian Foster’s All Blacks have been criticised over the past 18 months not for the fact that they’ve lost games but for the way they’ve played in those defeats: uninspired, at times unintelligent rugby. They may have nabbed a win in Melbourne – and now have one hand on the Rugby Championship – but their performance on the night wasn’t necessarily a step-up from what we’ve seen already this year.

Sam Cane’s absence from the final 60 minutes hurt the All Blacks more than most fans will be willing to admit while having to front without Ardie Savea also compounded their problems, but New Zealand’s injury list pales in comparison to that of their opposition’s.

All in all, it was a sideways step for the All Blacks. Should Thursday’s win give fans confidence that the All Blacks are fighting their way back into the top echelon of international sides where France and Ireland currently reside? Unlikely. But after the torrid start to the season, any game that doesn’t end in defeat needs to be celebrated in this brave new era.

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