Heading into Bledisloe I, the selection of the halves, particularly at No.9, was one of the major talking points of Dave Rennie’s first Wallabies team.
For many, the running threat of Tate McDermott - one of the Queensland Reds’ best in 2020 - was a piece of the puzzle that the Wallabies needed.
Yet Rennie didn’t even include the first-time squad member in his 23 – much to the disappointment and surprise of Queensland fans – and instead called on the experience of Nic White.
The move proved to be a masterstroke as White delivered his finest performance in a Wallabies jersey as Australia secured a 16-16 draw in Wellington.
It was the type of performance that few Australians had seen, but those in the UK had become accustomed to after the 30-year-old spent the best part of three seasons at Exeter, who this weekend will play in their fifth consecutive final.
Even in last month’s Super Rugby AU final, many bemoaned White’s relentless box-kicking which was handled with aplomb by James O’Connor and Bryce Hegarty at the death in Canberra as the halfback, coming on midway through the second half for Joe Powell, attempted to play field position with the Brumbies hanging onto a lead.
But on Sunday, it was White as his best as he balanced his game to perfection, running the ball when space opened while exposing Ian Foster’s selection at the back with a series of pin-point box kicks.
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Two days earlier Rennie had commented that kicking was one of the reasons why Jake Gordon had got the nod over McDermott for the bench place because “we figured that would be really important in pressured situations”.
White relieved that pressure on Sunday and turned it into a weapon in the Wellington breeze.
He put boot to ball on seven occasions throughout the match and on the first four occasions helped the Wallabies regain possession, while Damian McKenzie – brought in for Beauden Barrett who pulled out on the eve of the game – spilt a couple of balls backwards in the second half too. It was a torrid afternoon for McKenzie, who came in from outside the 23 to take his place at fullback even though Jordie Barrett, who was one of New Zealand’s best during Super Rugby Aotearoa, was playing out of position on the right-wing.
By doing so, White allowed the Wallabies to control the kicking contest – an aspect of the game the All Blacks have generally won.
15th minute -
Here we saw George Bridge drop the ball near halfway. It gave the Wallabies an attacking scrum in great position to attack from, but it also helped settle the visitors after a frantic couple of minutes which saw Filipo Daugunu rush a kick near his own goal-line out wide.
Unfortunately for the Wallabies they gave away a free kick for an early push from the resulting scrum.
32nd minute –
Everyone who has watched the All Blacks know they are lethal after having points scored against them.
Following James O'Connor's penalty after 30 minutes, the Wallabies’ back-rowers Pete Samu and Harry Wilson made important settling runs before White, again, opted for the box kick.
McKenzie came rushing forward and spilt the ball. It gave the Wallabies a scrum 37 metres out from their own line.
41st minute –
Even with the wind behind him, White managed to make life just as difficult for the All Blacks.
After securing the kick-off from half-time, White cleared via the box kick and McKenzie spilt the ball backwards.
In a flash Filipo Daugunu was on the ball and the Wallabies won a crucial onball penalty to start the second half.
Later, he again had McKenzie on the backfoot with another box kick which went over the fullback and had him spilling it behind him.
But it wasn’t just White’s boot that had the All Blacks on the back foot, with the No.9 testing them around the fringes of the ruck.
White ran the ball seven times against the All Blacks, making two linebreaks and five tackle busts probing the line.
In doing so, he kept the All Blacks guessing.
21st minute –
In the 21st minute White ran the ball three times in quick succession.
His first came off the scrum, where he saw his opposite Aaron Smith just hold off him a slight and it allowed the Wallabies to get over the gain line.
One phase later he ran to the line and got over the gain line before Smith tackled him low.
Two phases later he smartly ran at Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who was slow getting back onside and ran through the hole left by the tight-head. As a result, Sam Cane was forced to scramble to tackle him, but White managed to offload to his lock Matt Philip, who was tackled just a metre short of the line.
It was a brilliant piece of heads up rugby that failed to be rewarded because the Wallabies were a fraction slow at the attacking cleanout.
32nd minute –
After forcing a knock on from McKenzie, White then rubbed salt into the wound by breaking from the resulting scrum.
White noticed, again, that Smith had just drifted off him at the scrum and with Sam Cane just fractionally slow in getting off the side of the scrum ran the ball.
White managed to get over the halfway line.
62nd minute –
It hardly went noticed, but White’s step to draw in the defence on Harry Wilson proved pivotal in the lead up to Daugunu’s try also.
After Hunter Paisami got the Wallabies on the front foot, White took a step to his right and Wilson ran a great decoy to suck in a defender which opened up space for Philip to run onto and get over the gain line.
A split second later, the All Blacks ripped the ball out, White pounced on the loose ball and managed to miraciously get away an out-the-back ball to Daugunu to score.
But the space on the fringes was opened up by White.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning White predicted that the All Blacks wouldn’t give him the freedom to run the ball in Bledisloe II as he did in Wellington.
If that’s the case, however, it will give his playmakers more space on the fringes as the All Blacks put more emphasis on White at the ruck.
That’s the beauty of heads up rugby and the threat of a running halfback.
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