Wednesday 21 February 2018 / 01:50 PM

International Rugby round-up

Cheika’s gambles backfire in Wallabies’ Eden Park walloping

Australian coach Michael Cheika’s decision to make six changes to his side that triumphed over New Zealand in Sydney virtually crucified the Wallabies in Auckland, consigning the visitors to a 41-13 loss as their Eden Park hoodoo continued.

Quade Cooper’s shock recall could hardly have had a more disastrous outcome, sin-binned for a high tackle on All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith early in the second half that also saw a penalty try awarded. By the time the No.10’s 10-minute purgatory was up (after which he was replaced), the hosts had turned a tenuous 13-6 lead into an unassailable 34-6 advantage.

The Wallabies competed well in the opening 40 – despite some shaky moments from Cooper – and scrambled defensively to concede just one try, a sensational 40-metre effort by hooker Dane Coles after Dan Carter brilliantly put him into space.

To their credit, the Wallabies didn’t fold in the last 20 minutes, with the All Blacks posting just one more five-pointer before Israel Folau, easily the vanquished Aussies’ best, scored a runaway consolation try.

Aside from Cooper’s shocker, the other recalled players – Will Skelton, Wycliff Palu, Nic White, Matt Toomua and Henry Speight – all had forgettable nights as the heroes from a week earlier lamentably sat on the sidelines. When the likes of Matt Giteau and David Pocock were injected off the bench, the result had effectively already been decided.

But perhaps most disturbing of all was Cheika’s defence of Cooper’s performance, and Cooper’s own generous self-appraisal of yet another Eden Park catastrophe. He was awful. End of story.

Back to the drawing board

Disappointingly, the Wallabies’ best XV is nowhere near being settled heading into the World Cup. Cheika will have to continue to tinker during pool play – but given they are up against England, Wales and Fiji in the toughest group of the tournament, he will need to be far more careful than he was heading into this Bledisloe blockbuster.

Reverting to something similar to the victorious ANZ Stadium line-up is Cheika’s safest bet. Although they were ordinary in that match, Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley is his best halfback-flyhalf option, while Giteau at No.12 should now be a no-brainer, the Pocock-Hooper starting combination proved it can work, and Skelton is clearly better off the bench.

ABs veterans stand tall

Pre-World Cup panic set in across the Tasman after New Zealand’s listless performance in the 27-19 loss in Sydney, but the All Blacks responded as champions generally do at Eden Park. They thoroughly outplayed their Wallabies opposites to a man (with the possible exception of Ben Smith, who was still very good up against Australia’s standout, Israel Folau) to power to a five-tries-to-one triumph.

In contrast to Cheika’s baffling selections, Steve Hansen’s tweaks (he made only three changes to a losing line-up) all came up trumps. Ma’a Nonu produced an awesome two-try, one-assist display to stitch up the No.12 jumper for the World Cup after coming in for Sonny Bill Williams, surprise choice Victor Vito produced a rousing display on the blindside with Jerome Kaino demoted to the bench, and the pack looked far more formidable at the set piece and in the loose with Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick starting together for the first time this year.

The most encouraging aspect from an individual point of view, though, was the spectacular return to form of veteran flyhalf Dan Carter. The legendary No.10 had struggled throughout the Super XV and in the early Tests as Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade applied pressure for his spot, but it was vintage DC on Saturday night. His ball-running and playmaking was dangerous and confident, his kicking in general play was spot on and he was almost flawless off the tee.

But the night belonged to the great Richie McCaw, who produced a typically stellar performance in his record-breaking 142nd Test match – and his last on New Zealand soil.

Milner-Skudder a custom-made World Cup star

If his dazzling two-try debut a week earlier hadn’t already done so, boom winger Nehe Milner-Skudder – a virtual unknown at the start of 2015 – booked his seat on the World Cup plane with another wonderful night out against the Wallabies. It was quality over quantity as play avoided him for most of the game, but his run and offload to set up the penalty try was mind-blowing. Milner-Skudder shapes as one of the genuine crowd-pleasers of the World Cup.

Springboks avoid further embarrassment

After three straight losses – and a maiden defeat to Rugby Championship lightweights Argentina – South Africa scored a drought-breaking 26-12 victory over the Pumas in Buenos Aires. Tries to wingers Bryan Habana and Lwazi Mvovo set up a 20-9 halftime lead, before Patrick Lambie, who booted 16 points, kept the Springboks at arm’s length during a dour second stanza.

Burgess binned on England debut

Former Rugby League superstar Sam Burgess’ transition into the 15-a-side game hit another snag as he received a yellow card in his England Test debut. The men in white still managed a 19-14 win over France in the Twickenham clash, however, with wingers Anthony Watson (2) and Jonny May scoring the home side’s tries, while flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo crossed for France’s only five-pointer. Burgess, playing at inside centre, was binned late in the first half for being in an offside position when he impeded a French player who had taken a quick tap.

Ireland run down plucky Scots

World Cup fancies Ireland were forced to come from behind to defeat Scotland 28-22 in an entertaining Landsdowne Road encounter. The scores were locked 7-all at halftime, but the visitors led 12-7 soon after the break and 22-21 with 13 minutes remaining. A brilliant try to winger Luke Fitzgerald from a cross-field kick clinched the result for Ireland.

Naiyaravoro stars as World XV whips Japan

A strong World XV combination was too powerful for the Eddie Jones-coached Japan in Tokyo, with Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro posting a hat-trick in a 45-20 drubbing. The World XV also contained the likes of Wallaby Test reps Liam Gill, Mike Harris and Berrick Barnes, ex-All Blacks Adam Thomson and Andy Ellis, and Springbok greats Bakkies Botha and Pierre Spies. Naiyaravoro’s eye-catching display kept him in the frame to nab a Wallabies World Cup spot after Drew Mitchell and Henry Speight failed to impress during Australia’s recent campaign.

[YouTube – Rugby Channel]

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Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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