Australia may have inflicted a second successive defeat on the All Blacks in Brisbane last weekend, but this hugely entertaining match provided no reason to doubt that New Zealand are still firm favourites for the World Cup.
For the duration of the first half, Australia’s performance resembled those we have come to expect from their opposition. Their physicality at the breakdown was astonishing – as was the intensity of their play – and New Zealand seemed to be dead and buried after Samo’s brilliant try. After receiving the ball on his own 10-metre line and casting off Adam Thompson’s weak challenge (who was, it must be said, hampered by an injury), Samo galloped to the try line with ease – a sensational turn of speed for the oldest man ever to have represented Australia in this competition. Dan Vickerman epitomised the Australian effort: he piled into every ruck with total commitment and even acted as scrum-half to feed Samo for his try. Time spent leading Cambridge University certainly has not dulled the ferocity or skill of his play.
New Zealand could not handle Australia’s pace, physicality, or penetration. It was an unexpected performance from both teams: there were plenty of errors from the usually perfect Dan Carter; and New Zealand’s defensive frailties were exposed, particularly around the fringes by the outstanding Will Genia who scored one try and created another for full-back Beale. Australia, on the other hand, showed an edge to their play which has been missing, probably since the last time they won the TriNations in 2001. We all know about Australia’s great backline – any side which can afford to leave Matt Giteau out of their World Cup squad must either be foolish or outrageously talented in that department (or perhaps both); we know that David Pocock is one of the few sevens who can match McCaw’s excellence; but Australia showed, in the TriNations finale, something of which we were previously unsure – that they are up for any fight.
This newfound hardness was highlighted by the supreme defensive effort of the Wallabies in the second half. New Zealand’s resurgence – thanks to some stern words from Graham Henry, no doubt – was largely based on a pick-and-drive game. It was brilliantly executed for Conrad Smith’s try: due reward for twenty-six phases strung together by the New Zealand pack (missing both Thompson and Read through first-half injuries). Nonu ran in another try, but throughout this period of play the Wallabies’ defensive effort was even more impressive than New Zealand’s ball retention and relentless attack.
With the score tied at 20-20 a New Zealand victory seemed inevitable, such was the certainty of their revival. But Genia, searing past Mealamu, found another hole in the black wall and fed Ioane who, as ever, was tracking his run on the inside. Ioane stepped off his right to beat Jane and passed to Beale for a well-worked try.
Australia produced an extraordinary performance. They showed that they are serious contenders for the World Cup (if Cooper can kick his goals) with a hardened edge to their contact work, and a greater hunger for victory. But, worryingly for the rest of the world, a great display from the Wallabies showed just how good this New Zealand team really is: that they can come back so strongly from such a demolition in the first half, and are prepared to grind out results predominantly with their pack demonstrates how seriously New Zealand are taking this World Cup. Australia will probably not play as well as this in the World Cup. But Richie McCaw will certainly not allow his team to get themselves into a 20-3 deficit again.
New Zealand had an off day but still managed to compete with this Australian side on top form. No other team in the world would have got close.