By Aiden McLaughlin
‘At the end of the day it’s a Bledisloe Cup series, we put a stake in the ground, we’re 1-0 up and we’re looking forward to next week.’
The words of Ian Foster post-match as the All Blacks once again placed one hand on the trans-Tasman silverware they covet so highly.
After predictable victories in July against Tonga and Fiji, the home side played their first game at Eden Park this year as they took on the Wallabies in front of a near capacity crowd of 47,069. On the occasion of Aaron Smith’s 100th Test Match, two late changes to the All Blacks bench saw Patrick Tuipulotu replace Scott Barrett and Samisoni Taukei’aho come in for Dane Coles, but for the first time in 2021 they fielded their first choice starting XV. The same couldn’t be said for the visitors who were missing the experience of Nic White and James O’Connor, while Marika Koroibete was one of three players stood down by Head Coach Dave Rennie after drinking beyond a team curfew last Saturday night.
The first 30 minutes was a disappointment for players, coaches and fans. Despite those earlier hitouts for the All Blacks and the Wallabies having beaten France 2-1 in an entertaining series last month, it was a scrappy, messy encounter, with numerous errors by both sides. The boot of Richie Mo’unga provided the All Blacks with a 9-0 lead as he kicked three penalties between the 17th and 28th minute, before his opposite number Noah Lolesio replied with a penalty of his own three minutes later to narrow the gap to six. From there, it was the visitors who scored the first try of the night. With their lineout struggling, it was ironic that a long throw over the top would be the path to that five-pointer. From the All Blacks 10 metre line, second five Hunter Paisami was able to collect the ball at speed, evade the tackles of Mo’unga and Codie Taylor, before passing back inside to left winger Andrew Kellaway. Lolesio failed with the conversion attempt and went on to miss a total of five kicks at goal from seven; a total of 12 points that could have made all the difference.
With 40 minutes gone, Sevu Reece scored the first try for the All Blacks, but not in his usual manner; the right winger picked the ball up from a mass of bodies on the Australian line and went in from the shortest of distances. A Mo’unga conversion would see the All Blacks return to the sheds with a 16-8 lead.
As has happened so often over the years, the All Blacks came out in the second half and with a blitz of tries, secured a decisive gap on the scoreboard which would prove too much for their opposition to overcome. But before tries from Mo’unga, David Havili and Damian McKenzie and a single successful conversion from Mo’unga would take the score out to 33-8, the All Blacks would have a memorable effort ruled out for a forward pass from Smith to Brodie Retallick on halfway. Starting just a couple of metres from his own line, Mo’unga beat one man before passing to Anton Lienert-Brown. From there, McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Smith, Retallick, Havili and Ardie Savea would all get their hands on the ball before Reece touched down in the left hand corner, for what would have been one of the great Eden Park tries.
With the game seemingly done and dusted, the Wallabies scored their own trio of second half tries in the last 15 minutes of the match, with a double from fullback Tom Banks and a last play consolation from replacement hooker Jordan Uelese.
After the full-time whistle, attention turned to an emotional Aaron Smith, and a presentation to mark his 100th appearance. Unusually for such an occasion, Smith did not run out first before the game started, but he confirmed afterwards that it was his decision not to do so.
‘I didn’t want to run out first because this team means more to me than doing that; Sam’s the captain and he runs out first. I wanted it to be as normal as possible. I had the huge honour of leading the Haka so I take that with a lot of pride. But for me the celebration only comes after, once the whistle had gone and the ball had been kicked off, you’ve played 100 games.’
For Foster, it was a game of three parts. Unhappy with the first 15 and the last 15 minutes, he was ‘delighted with the composure and the attitude’ shown in the other 50 minutes.
In the Australian camp, Rennie reflected that ‘for a big chunk of the game we defended well, but with the All Blacks you have to do it for 80 minutes.’ As Smith’s former coach at Manawatu, he also had his own tribute for the game’s newest test centurion.
‘He’s been phenomenal. I think the quality of his pass really changed the game the All Blacks can play. He was a great little player for Manawatu and credit to Nugget; he had opportunities to go elsewhere to big unions but him and Aaron Cruden decided to stay in Manawatu and to go on from there and play Super Rugby and play as many tests as he has is fantastic, so really rapt for him.’
With the disruptions to the All Black itinerary, the teams will return to Eden Park next Saturday night for game two of the Bledisloe Cup, where the home side will look to lock away that silverware for a 19th successive year. As is well known, Australia haven’t won there since 1986 and the All Blacks are unbeaten there since 1994. With plenty of improvement possible from both sides, hopefully the overall quality of the game will take a step up; the visitors will certainly need to be at their best to stop the Eden Park stats in their tracks and take the Cup to a decider in Perth at the end of this month.
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