The Wallabies saved their worst for last in a Bledisloe series when they had already shipped their highest ever points total to the All Blacks, yet Sunday afternoon’s 38-21 defeat in Perth was far more deflating given the nature of how it unfolded at Optus Stadium.
New Zealand were never seriously under any scoreboard pressure in Perth, unlike they had been for patches of the first two Tests, as a bumbling Wallabies side suffering the indignity of a series clean sweep – the 18th time the All Blacks have achieved the feat.
Back-rower Akira Ioane was outstanding for the visitors on an afternoon when New Zealand were forced to deal with the loss of Jordie Barrett, who was red-carded for a boot to the face of a chasing Marika Koroibete.
But just as they had done in Auckland three weeks ago when they masterfully managed Ardie Savea’s yellow card, the All Blacks this time came out from the 20-minute stretch when they were down to 14 men five points better off than when it had started.
Barrett’s dismissal will be debated in the days ahead, though both Dave Rennie and Ian Foster agreed the presence of the red-card replacement on this occasion was worthwhile.
What there is absolutely no debating is the clear gulf in class between the two teams. And just how much work Rennie has to do if he’s to make his side competitive with the Springboks, whom lie in wait on the Gold Coast next week.
Australia continue to cough up simple opportunities by undoing their good work, more often than not with a poor pass or attacking decision, or a breakdown cleanout that was at times just woefully ineffective in Perth.
“We played a lot of good footy and created chances to put a bit of heat on them on the scoreboard, but we didn’t turn pressure into points,” Rennie said in assessing the match. “If you turn the ball over against the All Blacks they’ll punish you, and we saw that again today.”
While the Wallabies very nearly scored the first try of the match, they were utterly dreadful in the first half thereafter. Koroibete had two five-pointers scrubbed off by the TMO, both technically correct, while the All Blacks ran in two tries of their own, the first a brilliant attacking sequence that started with a Beauden Barrett grubber picked up by Will Jordan and put through the hands of Brad Weber to Jordie Barrett to cross under the sticks.
But it was George Bower’s try from the rolling maul just before halftime that was the bigger blow, particularly given the Wallabies had a one-man advantage at that point.
Australia had otherwise fumbled their way through the first 40 with a woefully ineffective breakdown and an inability to break through the All Blacks’ defence. The visitors were ruthless to capitalise on any tackle contest that Australia was slow to, or the first arriving players had missed the initial hit, then jumped on the ball to win the turnover or earn a penalty from referee Damon Murphy, of which there were many.
“I think a couple of times there we’d gone to areas where we’re pretty isolated and they’ve actually got more defenders than we’ve got attackers,” Rennie said of the Wallabies’ breakdown failings. “The other situations we were talking about, we’ve got to be prepared to turn them around and put the ball in behind them and back our defence from there.
“It’s a range of things, isn’t it? They’re very good over the ball and we lost a few races; our ball-carriers have got to do a better job to try and buy some time for us. It’s an area that we’ve put massive time into, and disappointing that we didn’t do a better job there tonight.”
It was the Wallabies’ worst half of the series, which is an embarrassingly poor indictment on their play given they shipped 35 points in the second stanza in Auckland last month. At 18-0 down the game was as good as done; ironically the Wallabies were able to close the gap to 11 points once Damian McKenzie was able to replace Jordie Barrett with the 20-minute sanction now served.
If there was a play to sum up Australia’s first-half effort it was Tom Banks’ kick for line immediately after Jordie Barrett’s removal. Given the perfect chance to apply some immediate pressure on New Zealand’s line, Banks kicked the ball dead. Opportunity squandered.
The All Blacks weren’t perhaps at their best without Aaron Smith’s crisp delivery, but they were still able to punish Australia’s mistakes. They included a fourth and fifth runaway intercept tries for the series, after Akira Ioane had produced one of his many devastating runs to put Will Jordan over to quickly snuff out any chance of a genuine momentum shift following Folau Faingaa’s try.
Australia’s first intercept culprit in Perth was Matt Philip, the lock passing blind to his outside for David Havili to pinch possession and sprint 80 metres for the try. The second came via TJ Perenara, who picked off an inside pass from Rob Valetini just as the Wallabies looked to threaten, the veteran halfback then tore upfield and dropped a cross-field kick for George Bridge to score.
Akira Ioane, meanwhile, was outstanding throughout.
While his brother Rieko, who produced a wonderful chase to deny Tom Banks a try on Sunday, has been a star since he first joined the All Blacks as an 18-year-old, it has taken Akira much more time to deliver on his immense individual talent, first in Super Rugby and now at Test level.
But the back-rower unleashed the power and speed he has always had in his game with damaging effect in Perth, laying on two tries as he ran for 82 metres and made three clean breaks — and generally gave the Wallabies a torrid time of it whenever the play came his way.
“I think with Aki, there’s been a lot of doubters,” All Blacks captain Savea said of Ioane. “But I think just seeing him grow off the field and the little things we didn’t see Aki do [before], I’m starting to see that now.
“And I think he’s maturing as a man and we’re getting to see the fruit on the field; he’s an absolute beast and a freak. And seeing him out in the wide channels and making tackles is pretty awesome to see.
“I’ve known Aki from the start and I’ve always known that [his play] there was there and it was around how do we bring that out? And I think you guys are starting to see that now.”
The Wallabies can take some positives in the continued development of Tate McDermott, who again opened up the All Blacks through the middle of the paddock, while they also received good injections off the bench from Pete Samu, Angus Bell and Nic White. Samu, in particular, perhaps offers some point of difference for Rennie moving forward, a back-rower who may be able to mirror some of the impact of Akira Ioane.
Samu Kerevi was solid in midfield in his first Test in close to two years, and who knows how different the game might have been had the inside centre been behind the ball at the ruck before he split the All Blacks through the middle and put Koroibete away, eventually to no avail.
But Australia continue to be badly beaten at the tackle contest – which is worrying given the All Blacks have been without skipper Sam Cane throughout the series and stand-in captain Ardie Savea played only 38 minutes in Perth – while their decision-making is more often wrong than it is right.
Some of that can be put down to the youth throughout Rennie’s squad, but that excuse can’t last much longer than this year. With the All Blacks now thankfully in the rearview mirror, the Wallabies’ improvements have to come against South Africa and Argentina across the remainder of the Rugby Championship, and then [potentially] Japan, followed by England, Wales and Scotland.
But in this Bledisloe series Australia have been well beaten by New Zealand across multiple facets of the game, the Wallabies also continue to fail to nail their key moments. While ever that continues, they’ll keep coming second against the All Blacks.
Tries: Folau Fainga’a(50′) Nic White(66′) Tom Banks(79′)
Conversions: Noah Lolesio(51′) Reece Hodge(66′, 79′)
New Zealand 38
Tries: Jordie Barrett(17′) David Havili(40′, 61′) Will Jordan(55′) Anton Lienert-Brown(69′) George Bridge(72′)
Conversion: Beauden Barrett(18′)
Penalties: Beauden Barrett(9′, 15′)
Red Card: Jordie Barrett(28′)