Confession time: some All Blacks doubts had crept in
Canon Rugby in Focus: Jim Kayes never lost faith in Steve Hansen, but...
It feels a bit like a trip to the confessional.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I never truly lost faith, but I did let the thinnest of doubts creep in.”
A record loss will do that - just as a retaliatory thumping a week later purges such concerns, washes away the worries and restores the faith.
Sport does that. Or at least it can. It can take you on an emotional roller coaster from the depths of despair after the record loss in Perth to soaring with the All Blacks and their 36-0 shut out at the Garden of Eden.
To be fair, I never truly lost faith in Steve Hansen. His record is too good for that and it was obvious the All Blacks had just had a shocker in Perth and the Wallabies had played well.
Sometimes in elite sport when one team is a bit off and the other hits form, scores can blow out.
The Wallabies will be hoping that’s all it was at Eden Park, but history suggests their good games against the All Blacks are increasingly few and far between.
They arrived in Auckland with one hand on the Bledisloe Cup and flew home with it amputated, chopped off by an All Blacks team that was as ruthless and clinical as ever.
But some doubts had crept in. I wondered if Hansen had lost faith in his own beliefs. If the injury to Damian McKenzie and absence of Liam Squire had derailed his plans.
As I typed those words I could picture Steve shaking his head, a half smile on his face before he muttered in his ventriloquist grumble: “Jimmy, have some faith son. We’ve got a plan and we are sticking to that plan.”
Sure, but I still don’t fully believe (there is that word again) that dropping Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane for a Bledisloe Cup decider was truly part of that plan.
That was a decision that reflected form - and it was a master stroke.
Sevu Reece and George Bridge were superb on the wings, part of a backline that scored five tries and showcased their skills in slippery conditions at Eden Park.
It was a wonderful display but the backs simply determined the margin of this win.
It was the pack that ensured it would happen.
Having been completely outplayed in Perth, the black eight (missing Brodie Retallick lest we forget) produced the sort of performance that will echo around the rugby world as the World Cup moves off the horizon with a month to go.
They carted the ball up and through the middle, drove well, and knocked the Wallabies over when they tried to respond in kind.
And, when they were a man down with Dane Coles in the sin bin for a judo throw on halfback Nic White, they hammered the Wallabies scrum, not once, but twice.
England did that to the All Blacks in Wellington in 2003 and went on to win the World Cup in Australia, so if you’re into omens…
Another hugely positive aspect from Eden Park was that the All Blacks kept Australia scoreless. That’s no mean feat, especially as this was the same Wallabies team that had scored six tries in Perth (though, admittedly, against 14 men in the second half).
Defence wins big matches so that performance in Auckland was reassuring ahead of the World Cup.
The win doesn’t guarantee success in Japan. The All Blacks know there are too many variables at a World Cup for that.
But, after some patchy performances last year and a tepid start this year with an average win against Argentina, the draw with South Africa and then the thumping in Perth, Eden Park was a timely performance.
It wasn’t enough to keep the All Blacks at No.1 in the world. Wales now have that spot, largely because of a quirk in the rankings which allocates different points for wins depending on the ranking of the opposition.
The All Blacks won’t care two jots about that.
They have retained the Bledisloe Cup and can now fully focus on winning the World Cup for a third consecutive time.
And, for those who doubt they can do it, who have lost faith in Hansen and his homilies, the All Blacks showed again at their Garden of Eden that when they play to their potential they can still tear a team to pieces.
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