Wallabies must turn hard luck into heroism to make Bledisloe history at Eden Park

Wallabies must turn hard luck into heroism to make Bledisloe history at Eden Park

In the hullabaloo of their cruel last-minute defeat by the All Blacks in Melbourne, the true character of this Wallabies side has been exposed, ignored, mocked and crucified, but too seldom celebrated. Sure, they have lost the Bledisloe Cup for a 20th year and let a winnable Rugby Championship slip, slumped to an all-time low of ninth on the world rankings and left their fans exasperated yet again.

But they also showed a grit of which Australians can be proud, and which may yet serve them well in the upcoming spring tour Tests against Scotland, France, Italy, Ireland and Wales, and the World Cup in France next September. For now they must face the All Blacks afresh by drawing strength from last week’s performance, a rousing, riotous fightback that almost secured a famous victory.

Down 31-13 in the final quarter in Melbourne, the Wallabies did not panic and throw caution to the wind as they might have (and did in the past). Instead they held their nerve, stuck to the game plan and backed themselves, and each other, to turn it around. This they did, calmly and ruthlessly laying on three fantastic tries in quick time, then nailing every kicking opportunity, to get their noses in front.

What happened next will long be debated. Did Bernard Foley deliberately waste time by not kicking out? Did he not hear the referee’s instructions that “time off” was now “time on” over the crowd’s din? Did an obfuscating referee overstep his authority by pedantically enacting a law very rarely enforced? Does world rugby place too much emphasis on the rulebook and too little on “feel” for the game?

These questions deserve answers – and Rugby Australia has written to World Rugby asking for them while bemoaning “overbearing officials”. But there’s been no reply yet (maybe they mailed it?) and, while it all matters, and a referee deciding such an important Test is a terrible result for everyone, it’s history now. Sport has no soul and no memory, they say. And it certainly has no sympathy.

Bitter as they may be about Melbourne, the Wallabies have “parked it”, says coach Dave Rennie. There is another Bledisloe Test to prepare for this weekend, in the darkest depths of enemy territory. There are few sadder phrases in sport than “dead rubber”. Yes, the Bledisloe is gone, and with it the Rugby Championship, but the Wallabies must dig deeper for this Test than at any time this season.

Australia have not won a Test at Auckland’s Eden Park since Bob Hawke was prime minister, Crocodile Dundee was in cinemas and You’re the Voice was on the charts. The last time the Wallabies won there, 6 September 1986, Alan Jones was coach. That 22-9 victory was, he said: “Unreal, fantastic, phenomenal. Bigger than Quo Vadis, greater than anything.” Australia can achieve something equally unreal, fantastic and phenomenal if they win on Saturday.

The Wallabies haven’t won anywhere in New Zealand since 2001, and have lost 26 Tests there since then. But if they bring the grit that won them Tests against England in Perth and Argentina in Mendoza, and the flair that blew away South Africa in Adelaide and shocked the All Blacks last week, it’s possible.

Ravaged by injury all season, destabilised by the loss of their captain, Michael Hooper, in August and blighted by ill-discipline and hard luck, Rennie’s squad has shown huge character and spirit. Now they must square the series to prove to themselves and fans that Melbourne was no anomaly. If they break the Eden Park hoodoo and hurt the All Blacks on home turf, this season can be a success.

Rennie’s eight-man reshuffle in Melbourne paid dividends. The all-Melbourne backrow of Pete Samu, Rob Valetini and Rob Leota were imperious all night. But Leota has ruptured his achilles and, with Darcy Swain suspended for six weeks for his careless clean-out on Quinn Tupaea, veteran Caderyn Neville comes in at lock, alongside journeyman Jed Holloway and Harry Wilson on the flanks.

In the backs, fullback Andrew Kellaway’s two late tries have kept him in the No 15 jersey. But again Rennie hasn’t blooded underused Melbourne Storm convert Suliasi Vunivalu, a proven try-scorer (86 tries in 111 NRL games) capable of breaking the line and, at 192cm, competing in the air. With Marika Koroibete on the left and Vunivalu on the right, Australia might have boasted serious weaponry.

With the cool head and guile of Foley at pivot, the Wallabies are a chance of a boilover. The challenge is immense. The All Blacks are at their fortress with star Ardie Savea back in the black. And off-field, the AFL grand final and NRL prelims are competing for TV eyeballs. But if they keep the faith from last week, and fortune favours the brave, this gritty Wallabies side can still make a bit of history.