Gregor Paul: Best All Blacks defensive display in years sends warning to rugby world

OPINION:

The Wallabies have had a rising sense they were getting close to the All Blacks this year – maybe just a pass or two and a bit of luck separating them from the All Blacks.

They were relieved of that notion in Perth by an All Blacks performance that illustrated these two teams are not as close as the Wallabies believed.

There were just too many ways in which the All Blacks were better than the Wallabies. From being more physical, more cohesive and more aware, to being so much more composed, strategically on point and clinical.

And then there were the Ioane brothers – Rieko and Akira making their presence felt in the most telling way. They weren’t the difference as such, but Akira certainly brought the All Blacks points no other player on the planet would have while Rieko was so sharp and so penetrative that the Wallabies panicked every time he had the ball.

But it wasn’t a performance built on individual class. The magical skills of the Ioane boys, Beauden Barrett and David Havili were the soft parts of a hard, hard performance.

This was a victory grafted and blasted, with the odd creative twist that became a flurry towards the end of the game when the Wallabies were dying on their feet.

It was a classic ‘break them down, open them up’ performance from the All Blacks and what enabled them to do so much with the ball was the way they played without it.

Red card to Jordie Barrett aside, discipline was no enemy of this performance. Far from it, in fact. What defined the All Blacks in Perth was their adherence to the laws, their patience, their accuracy and intensity on defence.

There was the odd lapse but this was as good a defensive shift as we have seen in the Ian Foster coaching era.

The combination of linespeed, effective reading, strong technique and an urgency for players to get back on their feet and do it all again left the Wallabies running at a wall they couldn’t breach.

They had plenty of possession but weren’t able to do much, if anything with it. There were endless Wallabies phases when they went side to side, incrementally going backwards as they searched in vain for a half gap.

As they thumped about not really going anywhere, it was apparent their frustration was building and that an element of overthinking crept into their game as too regularly they were caught short of cleaners at the tackled ball and the All Blacks won a stream of turnover penalties.

Seeing the Wallaby attack flounder in the face of such a strong tackling surge felt like a coming of age moment for All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod.

He’s been with the team since 2017, but this was the first time it felt like the All Blacks were leading with the defence rather than their attack.

The world has become used to hailing the linespeed of the likes of South Africa and England, implying, perhaps inadvertently, that the All Blacks aren’t in the same league when it comes to defending.

This was a performance that has forced a rethink, a reason to re-evaluate the potential of this All Blacks team, or at least, be aware that they have more strings to their bow than has been assumed and they are just as capable as the Boks of being able to weaponise their defence.

It has also shown how much they have grown since last year when they also lost a man to a red card early in the game and lost their way entirely as a result.

This time – albeit they were able to replace the luckless Barrett after 20 minutes – they tightened and improved when they were reduced to 14 men and then transitioned successfully when they were restored to 15.

The curious thing is that this was easily the Wallabies’ best performance of the series and yet they looked to be further behind than when they pushed the All Blacks to the wire at Eden Park in test one.

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