New Zealand may have won this year’s Bledisloe Cup series with back-to-back victories over Australia in the Rugby Championship, but Saturday’s 41-33 triumph over the Wallabies was another statement from the All Blacks.
Steve Hansen’s side showed as much vulnerability as they have in recent months and actually succumbed to the visitors with a second-half scoreline of 14-11.
However, it was a classic case of the All Blacks feeding off what scraps they were given and making the best of their brief moments of brilliance both in the backs and forwards.
The day began with a link-up that’s been seen all too often in the last three months as Israel Dagg stepped into the line, doing the basics well and drawing in the opposition before releasing Julian Savea for a ninth-minute opener.
From there, it was Quade Cooper and Aaron Cruden’s turn to take centre stage for a time as the pair exchanged penalty blows, New Zealand’s fly-half adding a conversion while Cooper chipped home a chasing drop goal.
Australia’s lack of a cutting edge was punished, however, when Sam Cane scored arguably the try of the match. Cruden’s cross kick was brought down by Savea, swiftly passed inside to Dagg who then showed a sickening sidestep before offloading to Cane, in for the injured McCaw.
The 21-year-old flanker was omnipresent in the absence of the New Zealand legend, too, recording 13 tackles, the most of any player in the match.
Paul Cully emphasised the notion:
Another candidate for try of the match was the hosts’ third, where the half-back pairing of Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith linked in fluid motion, easing the ball from left flank to the right, the former crossing over for a well-deserved try with Dan Carter out injured.
Thankfully for the visitors, a 39th-minute score from Adam Ashley-Cooper capitalised on a rare lapse in concentration from New Zealand and ensured that the game wasn’t out of reach at the break, Hansen’s men leading 30-19.
It was in the second-half that New Zealand’s holes started to show as Matt Toomua scored his first Test try thanks to some ropey passing from the home side, intercepted by Tevita Kuridrani and finished off by the Brumbies utility.
However, Kieran Read capped off yet another talismanic display with a score of his own, which emerged where Australia’s backs were simply stretched too far against their All Blacks counterparts, leaving massive overlap opportunities.
The 76th minute saw Kuridrani pitch in with a try of his own to go hand-in-hand with his match-high tally of 92 metres made with ball in hand, although it wasn’t much more than a consolation at that stage.
Ewen McKenzie can certainly be encouraged by the fight shown by his side, particularly with the second-half arguably dominated by the visiting outfit, at least as far as the scoreline is concerned.
For Hansen, however, the matchup was a slight wake-up call that there are most certainly areas where his side might look to improve, not least of which is the security in which they handle the ball through the backs.
New Zealand X-Factor Performer: Israel Dagg
The more Dagg plays in New Zealand's No. 15 jersey, the more he seems to settle further and further into his increasing responsibilities as one of the bigger figures in the Southern Hemisphere side.
Zac Guildford tweeted to testify as much toward his New Zealand compatriot:
Against Australia, the Crusader carried for 58 metres and beat three defenders but showed that it's the defensive side of things that require work.
That being said, the 25-year-old's two assists helped tell the story of an almighty slug-fest between the two where it was the offence that proved key.
Australia X-Factor Performer: Quade Cooper
Scoring the majority of his side's points, Quade Cooper stepped to the fore with one of his more mature displays on Saturday, not blotted by the wasteful tendencies that sometimes take precedence in his play.
Scoring 18 of Australia's 33 points, Cooper kept his side within touching distance of the All Blacks when it was needed most and allowed the Wallabies even to launch any hopes of a second-half revival.