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Wallabies face up to near 20-year long Bledisloe Cup Groundhog Day

After the Wallabies’ 38-21 defeat to the All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup Test in Perth on Sunday a despondent Australian halfback Tate McDermott lamented that it felt like Groundhog Day. The feeling was similar to the 33-25 loss in the first Test of the series at Eden Park in Auckland and the 57-22 reverse in the second.

The reality is it has felt this way for almost 20 years.

The All Blacks’ 3-0 victory was their 18th clean sweep against the Wallabies, but their ninth since regaining the Bledisloe Cup in 2003, which they have held ever since. In this period All Blacks coaches and players have come and gone, but one fundamental principle of New Zealand rugby remained – the realisation that the most important moment in a game is when the ball changes hands.

The Kiwis understand this principle better than anyone. The Wallabies think they do, but they really don’t. At least, not instinctively. The All Blacks scored six tries in Perth, most of them originating from Australian mistakes, including two intercept tries. The Wallabies conceded a total of five intercept tries in the three Bledisloe Cup Tests, which must be some kind of record.

The Australians had three weeks to prepare for Sunday’s game, but they do not seem to learn. They talk about reducing errors, but they never do, and that feeds the All Blacks’ insatiable appetite for turnover ball. The Wallabies enjoyed 55% of possession, a potential advantage against many teams, but a distinct disadvantage against the All Blacks if you do not treasure the ball.

Lots of little mistakes added up to one big problem for the Wallabies. An inaccurate throw to the lineout, missing an easy shot at penalty goal and kicking the ball dead when it should have gone into touch were just a few examples of the Australians undermining themselves, while the All Blacks feasted on errors.

Wallabies winger Marika Koroibete had two tries disallowed because of technical errors. Koroibete was penalised for “crawling” to the tryline after joining a rolling maul and centre Samu Kerevi was caught for a ruck infringement just before making a bust to put Koroibete over. A team cannot let a possible 14 points go begging against the All Blacks and expect to win.

Kerevi, recalled to the Wallabies following an amendment to the rules governing the eligibility of overseas-based players, gave the side go-forward, but they need to find a way to utilise his skills more productively. The Wallabies attempted to play a high tempo game which played into the All Blacks’ hands. If the Wallabies want to play at pace, they have to be controlled, not frenetic.

As in the previous two Tests, the Wallabies enjoyed patches of promising play, but their good work was usually undone by errors, which the All Blacks pounced on. After the game a frustrated Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said the team had to be more “clinical”. Maybe the players are over-excited. If so, they need to calm down and play with more composure.

The All Blacks missed three of their best players – five-eighth Richie Mo’unga, second-rower Sam Whitelock and halfback Aaron Smith – but they had more than capable replacements. No 10 Beauden Barrett’s kicking game in general play was far superior to the Wallabies. Significantly, even though the Wallabies dominated possession, the All Blacks dominated territory on the back of Barrett’s tactical kicking.

Perhaps the most disappointing period of the game for the Wallabies was the 20 minutes when the All Blacks were reduced to 14 men after fullback Jordie Barrett was red-carded for connecting with Koroibete’s head with his boot while taking a high ball. The Wallabies failed to capitalise. The All Blacks led 13-0 when Barrett was sent off in the 27th minute, but they extended their lead to 18-0 at half-time after centre David Havili joined a rolling maul to score in the 39th minute.

Ironically, hooker Folau Fainga’a scored the Wallabies first try in the 49th minute, just a minute after the All Blacks’ returned to a full complement of players with Damian McKenzie replacing the red-carded Barrett. The try followed a sniping run around the edge of a ruck by McDermott, who was arguably the Wallabies’ best player. McDermott employed this tactic effectively as did replacement No 9 Nic White, who set up fullback Tom Banks’ try in the 79th minute to give the Wallabies the final word.

While the Perth Test was a Bledisloe Cup dead rubber, it was a second round match in the Rugby Championship. Just when things could not get any more difficult for the Wallabies, they will play the world champions South Africa on the Gold Coast on Sunday night. The Springboks will pose an entirely different, but no less daunting, challenge and the Wallabies will need to perform a lot better or experience another Groundhog Day.