Bledisloe Cup finale anything but a dead rubber in Rugby Championship
The third Bledisloe Cup Test in Perth on Sunday is a dead rubber, but it is also a crucial match in the Rugby Championship, so it becomes a contest with dual meanings.
The All Blacks’ 33-25 and 57-22 wins in the first two Tests, both played at Eden Park in Auckland, decided the Bledisloe Cup series, keeping the symbol of trans-Tasman supremacy in Kiwi hands for the 19th year in a row. The Wallabies will now be seeking to avoid the humiliation of a 3-0 sweep.
This is the kind of game Australia often win when the Bledisloe has already been decided and the pressure is off, but because it is being played concurrently with the Rugby Championship, it will take on a different significance.
After losing 57-22 to the All Blacks in what was the first Rugby Championship Test, if the Wallabies can upset the Kiwis in Perth, they will still have a chance to win the competition, which also involves the world champion Springboks and Argentina.
But it is a pretty big if. The record 35-point margin in the last Test was a good indication of the gap between the two sides.
The Wallabies are hoping to draw inspiration from their upset 47-26 win against the All Blacks in Perth in 2019, but that victory might work against them. The opportunity to avenge their loss in 2019 will provide the All Blacks with extra motivation. The Kiwis’ retribution is usually swift.
In Dave Rennie’s first season as coach last year the Wallabies drew with the All Blacks 16-16 in the opening Test and beat them 24-22 in the last, but were thrashed in the two that really mattered in between.
Another two convincing defeats this year should have told the Wallabies that what they are doing is not working. It is futile to play a high tempo, expansive game against the All Blacks without the skills to match the ambition, while a kicking game that gives the ball back to the Kiwis to counter-attack is simply asking for trouble.
Maybe the Wallabies should look to the wild for answers. In the ocean killer whales can be seen turning sharks upside down to induce tonic immobility. If the fearsome predators are held this way for about 15 minutes they will suffocate. That is what the Wallabies have to do to the All Blacks – they have to find a way to flip the shark and suffocate it.
It starts with physical, but controlled, aggression, which is something Rennie is trying to instil into the Wallabies. The All Blacks love to express themselves and do not enjoy teams getting in their face.
Rennie has exhorted the Wallabies to “treasure” the ball, but their approach with both ball in hand and kicking out of hand is inherently risky against an All Blacks team that feasts on errors.
The Wallabies should not play any fancy rugby in their own half. They need to keep the ball in hand, minimise mistakes and patiently build pressure to create attacking opportunities in the All Blacks’ territory.
Rennie has introduced a New Zealand-style attacking-kicking game to the Wallabies, but without much success. While the coach can see the space behind the All Blacks, most of the Wallabies backs seem unsure about when they are supposed to run the ball and when to kick it.
If the Wallabies are to kick the ball, they must ensure that it goes out. The All Blacks love nothing more than attacking from broken play. So many of their tries against the Wallabies have come from, in one way or another, the Australians giving the ball away.
It is unlikely the recent off-field hostilities between Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby will have any bearing on the game unless Rennie plans to bring RA CEO Andy Marinos along to fire up the team.
Neither side will be at full strength with the All Blacks missing Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock, while the Wallabies will be without Hunter Paisami and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. The All Blacks have the bigger losses, but they also have the greater depth.
Indications are Japan-based centre Samu Kerevi and lock Izack Rodda, who has returned from a stint in France, will play, while there is speculation about whether mercurial playmaker Quade Cooper will be recalled.
Intriguingly, Cooper is the one player in the Wallabies’ wider squad with the skill-set to execute Rennie’s attacking-kicking game. When the Queensland Reds won the Super Rugby title in 2011 they kicked the ball more than any team in the competition with Cooper and his halves partner Will Genia executing an attacking-kicking strategy.
Cooper would be a big risk, particularly against the All Blacks, but what have the Wallabies got to lose? They will not gain redemption by beating the All Blacks in a Bledisloe Cup dead rubber, but they will restore some credibility if they are competitive in the Rugby Championship. One game, two meanings.