Payten column: New Zealand waited for the Wallabies to crack - and they did

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

Midway through the first half of the Bledisloe opener in Sydney, with the Wallabies on top via strong defence, a call came in the Fox Sports commentary.

“The All Blacks just can’t settle into their rhythm.”

It wouldn’t be the last mistake made by an Aussie on the night.

The All Blacks don’t need rhythm to do their damage. They need lapses.

And sure enough, a few moments later the Wallabies gave them one.

After an aggressive, in-your-face defence for 38 minutes that had repelled numerous Kiwi raids on the Wallaby line - and even forced Kieran Read to eventually point to the sticks - the Aussies finally lapsed. 

Lukhan Tui missed a tackle on Ben Smith and four passes in a phonebox later, Aaron Smith scored.

Australia still led 6-5 at the break but that tiny lapse was the beginning of the end. 

On the stroke of half-time, New Zealand’s visible tension melted away and the swaggering All Blacks re-entered the room. 

It’s easy to imagine the talk in the Kiwi sheds: “More of that boys. We survived. Keep pressuring, wait for the error and strike.”

And that’s what precisely what happened. 

Lapses began to mount up, and so did the score.

When play resumed, Marika Koroibete had the ball stripped on attack and with too many Wallabies around the ruck, New Zealand spun it wide in their own 22.

Jack Goodhue scored down the other end.

The score moved to 12-6. Was the contest over? Nope. 

But most in the stadium - including the two teams on the field - no doubt felt an old thought pop into the head: “Here we go again.”

It’s always interesting re-watching a game that ends up as a heavy loss on the scoreboard. 

In cold light of the next day raw emotions give way to 20-20 hindsight, that shows exactly what mistakes were made, what caused them and who was responsible.

It can either re-affirm depressing feelings of a one-sided pantsing, or present a slightly different picture, where with a referee call here or a better decision there, a tighter final score or different result could have unfolded. 

Which one was Bledisloe One, 2018? It was a little of both.

The All Blacks scored a record amount of second-half points against Australia (33), just a year after scoring a record amount of first half-points (40).

The Kiwis’ winning margin was five points more in 2018 than 2017 but last year’s 54-34 defeat was, overall, a more abject performance.

The Wallabies’ defensive performance for the first half was strong, and had the frazzled All Blacks looking decidedly human with handling errors and lost shape.

At half-time, there was legitimate reason for Wallabies fans to be optimistic.

The unravelling came in the second half this year but it was disturbingly easy.

And despite the Wallabies being confident their conditioning levels were good, the petrol used up on physicality in that first half would prove significant.

The major erosion came in the set-pieces. With no Scott Sio or Taniela Tupou in reserve, the scrum began to give away penalties.

And the Wallaby lineout was picked apart by the Kiwis.

Under pressure at both to simply win their own ball, the kick-on consequence was the Wallabies then over-played their hand from bad places.

With a scrum win in their own half, a backline move intended to find space wide was shut down by Goodhue’s linespeed. 

A dropped ball was hacked ahead by Beauden Barrett, who scored again. Pressure, lapse and free points. At 19-6, the game was slipping. 

Given the Wallabies effectively couldn't secure their own ball at set-piece time, much less mount the pressure game they need to score, it is even surprising they still created chances. 

Jack Maddocks' break led to Latu popping a high-risk pass near the line. Hold that ball and a try might have followed.

Instead Brodie Retallick scored a runaway try (after another lost line out) and it’s here that the petrol tank reared its head.

There’ll be some embarrassed Wallabies when tape is watched in review and their defensive chase-back effort - or lack of it - on several Kiwi tries is highlighted. The Wallabies missed tackle count grew rapidly, too.

New Zealand appeared to be the fitter team, and Michael Cheika will need to re-think when he throws fresh bench legs into the game.

Somehow the Wallabies still weren’t officially buried at this point, though. Maddocks scored to make it 26-13 and in the 71st minute another try from Australia could have set up a grandstand finish.

But when the Wallabies tried to maul a try over it was broken up in dubious fashion. Kieran Read not only surfed up the side, he knocked the ball out of Will Genia’s hands and snaffled it.

Jaco Peyper incorrectly ruled Read “came through the middle” and after an unbroken stretch of play that saw Beale throw an intercept - lapse - Barrett toed ahead for Naholo to score. Game over.

Genia blew up at Peyper behind the goal line about the knock down.

“I missed that then,” Peyper said.

Genia replied: “Mate what are you watching?”

Peyper didn’t have a great night but on this instance he did have his head turned, at exactly that moment, to look for the offside line. 

Sideline official Luke Pearce had no such excuse. A sliding doors scenario? Who knows.

Naholo scored another soon after as the Wallabies’ petrol ran out and weak attempted tackles were put in.

And though the last try was effectively inconsequential to the result, the soft Wallaby effort displayed on it and the last five minutes in general will arguably burn the most for Cheika.

After they were pumped in Sydney last year but almost won the second in Dunedin, the Wallabies identified how ‘staying in the fight’ was critical against New Zealand.

But they left the contest and by fading out enough times on Saturday night, the Wallabies got exposed again in Sydney.

They'd made it easy on the All Blacks and beat themselves.

Can the Wallabies do what they did last year and shock everyone in the second Test, when all of us were tipping more annihilation?

That remains to be seen. Last year was a deeper hole to climb out but where Dunedin was a tough place to win, Eden Park is a straight-up graveyard.

The Wallabies must not only stay in the fight, they make also history to keep the Bledisloe Cup hopes alive. Which is, sadly, an all-too familiar sentence to write. 

If the Wallabies needed their backs to be against the wall to produce something historic, they've got New Zealand exactly where they want them.