World rugby's wheel of fortune turned decisively in favour of Australia here on Saturday night. Sydney and this Bledisloe Cup/Tri-Nations Test match may prove a marker in the sand for the creation of a new era in the Australian game.
Just nine months after the Wallabies had returned home from the World Cup in despair, having committed the cardinal sin of losing to the English, a prospective new dawn emerged at Sydney's Olympic Stadium. There are plenty of reasons to suggest the world ought to sit up and take notice.
A new coach has introduced a fresh style and game plan. Furthermore, he has the promising talents of a new generation of players, a group thirsting with ambition and the skills to match. The next World Cup in 2011 may seem a long way away and there will be less convincing days, but Australia appear in the most propitious position to develop a new generation of talented players.
Their team on Saturday contained 10 players aged 25 or less. This squad is a coming threat to their rivals in world rugby. In the promising young half-back Luke Burgess, Australia may have unearthed a new Nick Farr-Jones and the multi-talented Matt Giteau has stepped into Stephen Larkham's shoes with audacious ease. But the youthful Wallabies won because they possessed a superior determination and desire to the All Blacks.
What are undoubtedly helping the Wallabies are the new laws. Southern hemisphere officials are not refereeing the breakdown, which has replaced line-outs as the key phase in the game. In Perth the previous weekend, when Australia beat South Africa, mayhem was allowed by the New Zealand official Bryce Lawrence. The South African Craig Joubert tolerated the same; players off their feet, hands on the ball on the ground and regular straying over the offside line. Joubert also ignored collapsed scrums and crooked feeds, permitting play to continue. But what is the point of having laws if they are not refereed?
It meant the speed of the game was phenomenal and mistakes were ruthlessly exploited. New Zealand were burnt by the Wallabies' searing pace. Their own decision-making and strategy, not to mention individual skills, collapsed under the pressure.
Most disturbing of all for New Zealand was the re-appearance of an old bête noire. When the match was in the balance, when cool heads and firm, strategic direction were required, the All Blacks again came up short. They looked bereft of cohesion, control and judgement – just as they had done in 1999, 2003 and 2007 in those World Cups.
This trait is a disturbing fragility. It should have been the younger, new-look Wallabies who panicked after seeing a 17-5 lead evaporate into a 17-19 deficit.
That New Zealand recovery, hallmarked by tries either side of half-time, should have been the precursor to a smooth takeover of the game. Robbie Deans' side are high on enthusiasm but short on experience. They should have been the ones falling apart under the pressure, and they would have been against a settled, formidable All Blacks' outfit.
Alas, the 2008 version is far from that. The chief trouble is that intensive pressure, both physical a mental, finds out those of lesser quality. Saturday night reminded us this New Zealand squad contains players unable to perform under those circumstances.
Thus, to see a New Zealand side confronted by adversity make a roaring comeback only to subside tamely to defeat was bizarre. The defensive alignment collapsed completely for the tries of both Peter Hynes and Rocky Elsom. There was no lack of endeavour but far too little subtlety, accuracy and deadly execution.
Daniel Carter did his best to pull the whole thing together but the All Blacks, like the Springboks the previous week in Perth, lost the match on turnovers. Class and composure are urgently needed by the All Blacks. The question is: who can provide them, apart from the obvious one or two?
Australia: Tries Cross, Hynes, Elsom, Horwill; Conversions Giteau 4; Penalty Giteau; Drop goal Giteau. New Zealand: Tries Muliaina, Hore, Ellis; Conversions Carter 2.
Australia: A Ashley-Cooper; P Hynes, R Cross, B Barnes, LTuqiri; M Giteau (T Tahu, 77), L Burgess; B Robinson, S Moore (T Polota-Nau, 59), A Baxter (M Dunning, 75), J Horwill, N Sharpe (D Vickerman, 62), R Elsom (P Waugh, 59), G Smith (capt), W Palu.
New Zealand: M Muliaina; A Tuitavake, R Kahui, M Nonu (C Smith, 62), S Sivivatu; D Carter, A Ellis (J Cowan, 46, A Ellis, 56-70 (blood), Cowan, 70); A Woodcock, A Hore (K Mealamu, 49), G Somerville (J Afoa, 56), B Thorn, A Williams, R So'oialo (capt), D Braid (S Lauaki, 49), J Kaino.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).Reuse content