Five player changes and a much better attitude reaped its reward when the All Blacks avenged their 47-26 Perth rugby defeat with a 36-0 whitewash of the Wallabies at Eden Park last Saturday night.
In doing so they maintained their grip on the prized Bledisloe Cup which head coach Steve Hansen rates second only to the Webb Ellis Cup, the prize for winning the World Cup.
Whether they can retain that trophy in Tokyo remains a moot point given the improvement made by South Africa, Wales, England, Ireland and Australia. But it was easily their best performance of a jitterey Rugby Championship and a much needed confidence boost.
Lock Patrick Tuipulotu and prop Nepo Laulala added grunt to the forward pack. highlighted by a seven-man scrum twice shunting the Wallabies backwards when Dane Coles was sinbinned for a stupid offence.
It was easily the powerful Tuipulotu’s best game of the season, having disappointed earlier in the Rugby Championship won by the much improved Springboks.
Having been promoted at the expense of Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith, workaholic wings George Bridge and Sevu Reece booked their tickets to Tokyo with outstanding performances, Bridge setting up two tries with sharp breaks and scoring one himself.
Reece is a speedy crackerjack who punches way above his weight and could star at the World Cup in much the same way Nehe Milner-Skudder did in 2015.
With Sonny Bill Williams running hard and straight and combining nicely in the centres with the excellent Anton Lienert-Brown, the backline prospered from the improved platform set by the forwards and the slick services of Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga.
Thankfully, selectors Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox have ignored calls from some critics to return Beauden Barrett to first-five after Mo’unga failed to deliver in the Perth test his brilliant Super Rugby form for the Crusaders.
What the naysayers failed to take into account was that in that test, Barrett was first receiver 23 times from fullback, the same as Mo’unga, behind an outclassed pack that failed to deliver quality ball.
Barrett has consistently performed well at fullback and remains most dangerous when he strikes out wide where he has more space to utilise his speed. He is an exceptional talent but so is Mo’unga who has been a major contributor to the Crusaders three consecutive Super Rugby titles.
Hopefully the shoulder injury he sustained last Saturday will heal quickly, as does that suffered by champion lock Brodie Retallick in the 16-all draw against new Rugby Championship winners South Africa.
In retaining the Bledisloe Cup in his 100th test as head coach, the laconic Hansen will have been delighted with the leadership shown by No 8 and captain Kieran Read whose form made a mockery of those critics who claimed he was a spent force.
Along with lock Sam Whitelock and fellow loosies Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, Read’s defence was superb. He doesn’t make the breaks he once did but still contributes to lineouts and kick-offs and still has a good draw and pass.
The fearless Cane’s return after a broken neck has been remarkable and what the team loses in the lineout with Savea’s promotion to No 6, it gains in sharpening the attack.
He and Coles are the team’s best attacking forwards although the latter needs to control his temper to ensure the All Blacks keep 15 men on the park.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer