Dave Rennie has done his level best this week to keep a lid on bubbling emotions following the Wallabies’ highly encouraging 16-all draw with the All Blacks that lifted flagging spirits on the Australian side of the Tasman. A draw in a Test that no one expected them to win was a moral victory, but judging by some of the reaction since, it could be that the nation’s rugby community is getting a little carried away with the result.
The general consensus seems to been that Australian rugby has been saved – by a draw – yet the Bledisloe Cup has not yet been regained after 18 long years and, with the second Test to be played at the Eden Park “graveyard” in Auckland on Sunday, the Wallabies cannot afford to get caught up in any hyperbole.
In the 117-year history of trans-Tasman rivalry, this was just one game. Hopefully, it was a very important game, a turning point in the Wallabies’ journey back from international also-rans to world champions, but we do not know that yet. They have been in this situation too many times before to start celebrating just yet – or even to start thinking of celebrating.
Perhaps because Australia play the All Blacks more than any other country in the world, the Wallabies occasionally catch them off guard. But just about every time the Wallabies spring an upset on the All Blacks the response from the men in black is severe, particularly in recent years.
When former Australia coach Robbie Deans guided the Wallabies to a 34-19 victory at his first attempt in Sydney in 2008 he warned they had made a rod for their own back. Deans, a former All Black himself, knew what was coming. A week later the Wallabies were thrashed 39-10 at Eden Park.
In his last Test in charge of the Wallabies against the All Blacks in 2012, Deans’ side secured an 18-all draw in Brisbane. The next time out, under new coach Ewen McKenzie in 2013, they were humiliated 47-29 in Sydney. McKenzie guided the Wallabies to a 12-all draw with the All Blacks in Sydney the following year; a week later the Australians were crushed 51-20 at Eden Park.
Rennie’s immediate predecessor Michael Cheika also guided his team to victory, 27-19, in his first match against the All Blacks in Sydney in 2015, but was then given a 41-13 hiding at Eden Park the following week. Cheika’s side upset the All Blacks twice more, 23-18 in Brisbane in 2017 and 47-26 in Perth last year, and those losses were avenged 38-13 in Sydney and 36-0 in Auckland respectively.
Have the Wallabies made a rod for their own back yet again or will they finally break the pattern of All Black vengeance?
It is an all too familiar pattern, the All Blacks avenging narrow losses or draws to the Wallabies with thumping victories in which they score 30, 40 or even 50 points. The question is, have the Wallabies made a rod for their own back yet again? Or will they finally break the pattern of All Black vengeance?
Many of the All Blacks’ avenging victories against the Wallabies have been at Eden Park, their spiritual home and fortress. Just because the game is in Auckland does not mean the All Blacks will automatically win, but history suggests it helps a lot. The All Blacks have not lost to anyone there since 1994, while the Wallabies have not won there since 1986.
Australia gained confidence from Wellington, but backing up good performances has not been one of their strong suits in recent years. In fact, their inconsistency has been a major issue. There would be no greater place for the Wallabies to overcome the psychological hurdle of inconsistency than Eden Park.
The Wallabies showed belief in themselves in Wellington, exposing flaws and vulnerability in a strangely lethargic and incoherent All Blacks, but to beat the Kiwis in New Zealand for the first time since 2001 they will need to improve their lineout, efficiency at the breakdown and straight running in attack. They will also need to deal with the mentality of the All Blacks, a team that equates losing to a near-death experience.
Like the great Queensland State of Origin teams of the past, the All Blacks try to dominate the end of a game regardless of the scoreboard so even if they lose, they take that dominant frame of mind into the next match.
At the end of the last eight-and-a-half minutes of frenetic, see-sawing rugby in Wellington, the All Blacks finished in a dominant position, forcing Wallabies five-eighth James O’Connor to settle for a draw by kicking the ball into touch from his own goal-mouth.
That is the biggest challenge the Wallabies must overcome on Sunday – not to prove they are a world rugby power once again, but that they are starting a long, hard journey back to the top. Until then Australian rugby needs to keep its emotions in check, even if it means Dave Rennie sitting on that lid all week long.