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FEATURE Why the Bledisloe Cup's future could be decided by a fly-half arms race

Why the Bledisloe Cup's future could be decided by a fly-half arms race
10 months ago

Although they suffered entirely different fates during the Bledisloe Cup series, New Zealand and Australia both learned the same lesson: how hard it is to grow a world class fly-half, and how long it takes to do.

For New Zealand, evidence of this came in the contrasting performances of Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie.

Mo’unga was a steadying, controlling and creative force in the first Test in Melbourne. He was the calm, decision-making maestro the All Blacks needed, and he made sure they played their rugby in the right areas of the field.

What hurt the Wallabies most was his strategic kicking and game management, and it was largely because he pulled the tactical strings so effectively that the All Blacks were able to storm over them in the final quarter, scoring three tries to win 38-7.

His performance caught the eye of Australia coach Eddie Jones.

“I thought Mo’unga kicked well, he’s turning into a proper Test 10 isn’t he?” Jones said. “His ability to instil the attack but keep the pressure on through good tactical kicking.”

The following week in Dunedin, McKenzie started at 10 for the fourth time in his All Blacks career and was a touch frantic.

The patience and composure at the heart of the All Blacks first three matches of 2023 were nowhere to be seen.

They had made 12 personnel changes so that was partly the problem in building a cohesive attack, but so too was McKenzie rushed and inaccurate, guilty of kicking too much ball away and not particularly accurately either.

The All Blacks lost their shape and tried to attack wide every time they had the ball, which made it all too easy for the Wallaby defence to pick them off.

That changed when Mo’unga was injected off the bench after 50 minutes and promptly delivered the control and accuracy the All Blacks needed.

He calmed everything down, straightened the attack, kicked less – and with more purpose when he did – and the All Blacks were able to claw their way back from 17-3 down to win 23-20, Mo’unga kicking the winning penalty in the 79th minute.

It was a performance which highlighted the value of time in the saddle and the reality that it takes patience to craft elite 10s.

It’s not something that can be rushed, and speaking after the Test, the simple way which Mo’unga said he wanted to go about his business when he was introduced alludes to the value of maturity and experience.

“We just needed to be direct,” he said. “I wanted to come on with a bit of accuracy and discipline in what we were trying to achieve as a team.

“To strip things back a bit and make things simple for the boys, and through that way we built pressure with the set-piece and with ball in hand.”

But it has taken Mo’unga five years to get to this point. In a few Tests, he played in a similar way to McKenzie at the beginning of his international career.

Looking back, he was never quite able to be the calm, authoritative figure he is now between 2018 and early 2022.

He would have good games, but rarely did he string commanding performances together. Often, even when he played well, there would be patchy periods.

This was something Jones also noted after the opener in Melbourne when he was asked to explain the display of his own pivot.

Jones had picked Carter Gordon to start for the first time, and the Rebels fly-half battled to make an impression. He was, perhaps not surprisingly given his lack of experience, a little mixed – distributing nicely enough, but his kicking game fell apart and his decision-making was haphazard.

That prompted Jones to say: “I have seen Mo’unga play Tests like that. If you look at Mo’unga, in his first 45 Tests, he had a bit of up and down, he wasn’t good enough and then he was good enough and sometimes you have got to go through a bit of pain to bring players through.”

It was a fair enough assessment of Mo’unga, and an indication that Jones, under pressure to justify his faith in 23-year-old Gordon, will not be bullied out of making the long-term investment he thinks has to be made to grow the callow playmaker.

Having stood up for Gordon, Jones was then asked a few days later, when he picked him again to start in Dunedin, whether he was repeating a selection mistake.

“Firstly, I don’t think I got it wrong, mate,” Jones said. “In fact, I’m going to get it right, and the player will get it right.

“To say that as a young 10 in his first game [as a starter], ‘you’ve got it wrong in selecting him’ is just a load of rubbish mate.

“So anyone who asks that question doesn’t know anything about rugby.

“If you know anything about rugby you know that 10s need time in the seat. If you don’t know anything about rugby then don’t talk to me.”

Jones soon doubled down.

“That’s not how coaching goes mate,” he said. “He’s a young guy coming through. He’s going to make more mistakes.

“I can guarantee you that. And he’ll learn from it. And when he’s played as many tests as Richie Mo’unga, or [Damian] McKenzie, then he’ll cease to make as many mistakes as he makes now.

“Now, we’d love him to a mistake-free game on Saturday. But the reality is he’s a young guy learning.

“He needs to make the mistakes and learn from it, and not listen to much from blokes like you.”

As it turned out, Gordon did indeed make mistakes in Dunedin, but fewer than he did in Melbourne, leading Jones to make it clear yet one more time, that this process can’t be fast-tracked.

“He’s a good young player and he’ll only get better and better the more time he has in the saddle,” Jones said after the 23-20 loss.

“He’s still learning and the difference now, having been away for a period of time, watching Super Rugby and Test matches, the gap has got bigger. Super Rugby doesn’t have that intensity and pressure of having to be able to do things over and over again like it used to.

“There’s a bit to learn, especially for our players who have been playing for teams down the bottom of the competition.”

What Jones didn’t say, but is presumably thinking, is that this World Cup will be an incredible learning tool for Gordon on his way to the 2027 tournament.

It’s not that the Wallabies don’t believe they can win the 2023 tournament, but Jones is trying to develop Gordon in the hope he’s got a world class 10 on his hands come the next World Cup.

And that timeline seems right. Four to five years is about the time it takes most international 10s to attain elite status.

Beauden Barrett, it can’t be forgotten, had four years as a bench player before he took ownership of the 10 jersey in 2016.

Aaron Cruden before him started his first Test in 2010 and looked every inch the new boy – uncertain, volatile and error-ridden.

But by 2013, Cruden was putting real pressure on Dan Carter to start each week. In the four years after he made his debut, Cruden slowly learned the art of controlling a Test and building the confidence to do so.

Johnny Sexton played behind Ronan O’Gara for four or five years and the only exception to this rule has been Carter, who had one season playing inside centre for the All Blacks in 2003, to be instantly brilliant at 10 when he was shifted there in late 2004.

So while the All Blacks are ahead of the Wallabies at the moment, a tactical arms-race may well begin next year when they both have to grow the respective talents of McKenzie – who will likely take over from the departing Mo’unga – and Gordon, who Jones is clearly going to back through to 2027.

There are other factors to consider, but there is truth to this idea that the future of the Bledisloe Cup will be decided by whichever one of them develops the quickest.

Comments

3 Comments
c
cs 309 days ago

Nice piece.

j
jeremy 310 days ago

Will be interesting to see Brynn Gatland's improvement over the next year or two. unfortunately he got injured at the wrong time and it did effect the chiefs. he plays a more accurate 10,less flashy but composed.

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