The All Blacks recovered from a dismal first-half display to beat Australia 19-14 in Hong Kong. .
The fixture was effectively a dead rubber with the All Blacks securing the Bledisloe Cup title in Brisbane, but much was expected of this historic event staged in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the game never lived up to its billing as a free-running spectacle.
This was partly due to the lukewarm effort of the players, but the shocking field conditions contributed unfavourably. Many a player lost his footing as the grass was ripped up in the first quarter. The rugby authorities may feel this is a great concept in terms of bringing the game to Asia (the Australasian unions will have benefited financially too), but come on, surely fundamentals like the playing field need to meet certain requirements for a top Test to be staged.
The Tri-Nations champions were tagged as favourites in the forward battle, but it was the Aussies that fronted in the tight exchanges. The Aussie scrum provided a great platform for attack as did the lineout, and although he conceded a few penalties George Smith ensured the All Blacks struggled to receive clean ball at the tackle point.
The Wallabies were the tactical victors in the first half, taking the right options and exercising a patience typical of Robbie Deans’s old Super 14 team, the Crusaders. Matt Giteau was in fine form and the clear winner in the battle of the flyhalves. His half-break and clever offload that led to the first Drew Mitchell try set the tone after eight minutes, as from this point the All Blacks were on the back foot.
New Zealand lacked leadership at halfback with Stephen Donald and Jimmy Cowan guilty of poor-option taking. It’s true their forwards weren’t fronting, but one can’t help but feel that Dan Carter would have taken charge. The hit-and-hope clearances, the aimless probes across the Aussie tryline when they finally received front-foot ball – it was a shaky display by Donald who never commanded much respect from the well-drilled Wallabies defence.
It was Carter who kept the All Blacks in the game with his incredible goal-kicking, as he nailed three difficult attempts in the first half to ensure the New Zealanders stayed in touch at 14-9. Apart from Carter, the All Blacks collective seemed to have one eye on Europe. Their minds and hearts were never fully in this contest, especially in the first half.
The All Blacks failed to get going initially due to a string of errors, but the Aussies lapsed early in the second half to allow their rivals to draw level. The ball was shifted smartly to Sitiveni Sivivatu’s wing, and the No 11 obliged with the finish.
Predictably, Donald was subbed after 49 minutes allowing Carter to resume the flyhalf responsibilities. Carter missed two opportunities to edge the New Zealanders ahead when he followed up a missed conversion with a wide penalty attempt. Nevertheless, the momentum had swung in the All Blacks’ favour.
Their scrums improved as did their structure, and with Carter marshalling the troops the Wallabies were now the outfit under siege. Ma’a Nonu made a big impact from centre as did substitute scrumhalf Piri Weepu. The All Blacks fluffed a few opportunities, but they maintained the pressure through a well-structured attack. A speculative pass by Sivivatu in the 62nd minute found Richie McCaw, who rounded off a great build-up.
Carter failed to add the extras, but Australia couldn’t make further inroads in the final quarter. This was due to some dogged All Blacks defence.
The Aussies can take heart from their first-half effort, but Deans must know this minor success was only due to the All Blacks’ rudderless approach. New Zealand should still win the Grand Slam when they head to Europe, but it’s clear they have plenty to work on, and the first change Graham Henry should be making is moving Carter back to 10.
Wallabies – Tries: Drew Mitchell (2). Conversions: Matt Giteau (2).
All Blacks – Tries: Sitiveni Sivivatu, Richie McCaw. Penalties: Dan Carter (3).
By Jon Cardinelli