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No global Nations Championship but the southern hemisphere sweeps Round 1 all the same

The second saddest sight from Perth on Saturday night was Wallabies manager Chris Webb reaching over the top of Quade Cooper to grab the No.10 jersey off its hook, to hand it to his late replacement, Noah Lolesio.

The saddest sight came just after the Wallabies had taken the field; a dejected Cooper still rooted to his seat, before being comforted by his friend, ex-All Black and Stan comments man, Sonny Bill Williams.

Ninety or so minutes later, Cooper’s demeanour had noticeably brightened; still carrying a troublesome calf, but delighted for his teammates, and Lolesio in particular, who had carried Australia to one of its more famous victories in recent memory.

The 30-28 win was memorable, not for the quality of the rugby played, but for the adversity overcome. Cooper, Alan Ala’alatoa, Tom Banks and Darcy Swain were all lost from the starting XV before half-time, but the Wallabies kept finding new men keen to prove that rugby these days really is a 23-man game.

Those players will need to step up again, with only Cooper a chance to appear next week in Brisbane.

New concussion protocols demand a mandatory stand-down for Ala’alatoa (and England’s Tom Curry), Banks faces an extended period out of the game after bending his arm into a shape that arms are not meant to be bent, and Swain… well, the less said the better.

England lock Jonny Hill was an A-grade pest from the get go, playing opponents off the ball at will and rudely shoving Swain in the face, before forgetting the golden rule of rugby; nobody respects a hair-puller.

Swain however, forgot rugby’s other golden rule; it is always the retaliator that gets pinged. Particularly when the retaliation is a head-butt. No matter that Swain’s effort would have been mercilessly mocked on the terraces of the old Den in the worst of Millwall FC’s heyday, there are some places every player knows you just can’t go.

Darcy Swain of the Wallabies receives a red card during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Places where players can go are the deep, dark areas where true character resides, and while Dave Rennie’s Wallabies remain a works-in-progress, there can be no doubt that resilience and character abound within this squad.

Some of the rugby still needs a bit of finesse, but sometimes winning Test matches isn’t about that. Take Samu Kerevi for example, in the 27th minute latching on to quick, unexpected turnover ball, the kind the All Blacks live for, and feast upon.

Kerevi’s instinctive reaction was to hoof it downfield, straight to where England had men stationed back. It was sheer wastefulness, and there were other occasions too where Kerevi might have found a man in space alongside him with a pass.

But Kerevi’s direct and abrasive approach was actually just what the Wallabies needed; to match England’s physicality and to provide his side with an attacking platform, and he delivered manfully.

As expected, the breakdown contest was fierce. Referee James Doleman penalised early, to try to set the tone and open things up for later, but neither he nor the 48,000-strong crowd were rewarded, with the Wallabies in particular, continuing to infringe throughout.

England showed a willingness to move the ball but their fluidity was misleading. Marcus Smith buzzed around on second man plays, looking to pick runners up on straighter, harder lines, but it was too often far enough behind the advantage line to afford the Wallabies the luxury of sitting back and assessing before committing to the tackle.

Owen Farrell did find Curry on one such play, but so much was Marika Koroibete up for the contest, he was able to turn and recover to snuff Joe Marchant out in the corner.

The irrepressible Koroibete reminded Melbourne Rebels’ fans of exactly what they’d been missing this season, although any residual angst over his departure should have been soothed by the showing of Andrew Kellaway, who was wholly impressive after being shifted to fullback.

Other revelations were the two debutants; hooker Dave Porecki busy and accurate, and Cadeyrn Neville manful; both part of a scrum that surprised many.

Not all was perfect. Freddie Steward was repeatedly picked out for catching practice, albeit Nic White mostly managed to contain England near the touchlines. The Wallabies also took too long to find a way to bring power ball-runners Rob Valetini and Rob Leota into the play.

Rob Valetini of the Wallabies looks on during The Rugby Championship match between the Australian Wallabies and the South Africa Springboks at Suncorp Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

But when the match needed to be won, answers were found. Koroibete spectacularly reclaimed a kick-off, the pack rolled their collective sleeves up, punching out hard-earned yards, before the ball was shifted wide and a delightful soft touch from Kellaway sent Jordan Petaia over.

More purposeful attack preceded Folau Fainga’a being squeezed out the front of a maul and over the line, before an exquisite step from Pete Samu delivered an emphatic coup de grace. All complemented by precision goalkicking by Lolesio.

The history books will show a narrow two-point win, courtesy of two late tries; a kind of mixed messaging. This was pure junk time, the Wallabies, delighted with their win, having put the cue in the rack a few minutes early.

But there was a message there for Eddie Jones as well. England look stodgy, stuck in the same rut that dogged them throughout this year’s Six Nations campaign, in need of fresh blood.

In just three minutes of football, Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet showed a path forward. Sure, England are missing the power of Manu Tuilagi, but dash and free spirit are invigorating.

Henry Arundell of England runs to score a scores a try during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

There will, of course, be more needed from the forward pack. Silenced early by referee Doleman, Maru Itoje won’t be kept so quiet next week. For long periods of the match England felt stronger in the clinches; they just need to sustain it for longer.

Swain’s absence will weaken the Wallabies’ defensive lineout; England should be able take their lineout to the bank and draw from it at will.

But Australia too, should be better. Cohesiveness is slowly building, and a 15th man will be welcomed. Against the odds victories stir the heart, but there’s something to be said for doing things the efficient, conventional way.

Oh yeah… anyone wondering what happened to the “red cards ruin matches” brigade, who once again seem to have fallen silent? Perhaps they too are coming to the realisation that players who do stupid things deserve to be sent off, and when they do, an opportunity exists for teammates to step up and make heroes of themselves.

There were no heroes in Auckland, just an All Black side stretching their unbeaten Eden Park run to a remarkable 47 matches, as they took out Ireland, 42-19.

Ireland started well and finished well, and will feel heartened by the number of opportunities they created. As always, Johnny Sexton was creative and troublesome, although he too looks likely to fall foul of the new concussion protocols, and will sit out next week.

The second quarter however was something all Wallabies fans will be familiar with. Ireland failed to adjust to a lift in tempo by the All Blacks, and small mistakes and lapses in concentration were punished by a ruthlessly efficient scoring machine.

Central to the party was halfback Aaron Smith, hitting runners in centrefield, on the outside of Ireland’s primary defensive wall, while Scott Barrett, despite his own touch of the Darcy Swain’s towards the end, satisfied concerns about his suitability for the No.6 jersey, with a powerful performance on both sides of the ball.

Of all the COVID sufferers in the New Zealand camp, it is David Havili who will be ailing the most. Having seemingly secured the 12 jersey after an outstanding display for the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final, he could only watch on as Quinn Tupaea took full advantage; composed and authoritative in everything he did.

Quinn Tupaea crosses for a five-pointer

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

As in Perth, there is a sense that both sides have plenty more left to give.

I’m not so sure the same applies to Wales, who did everything but upset South Africa in Pretoria, falling 32-19 to a late Damien Willemse penalty. This felt like ‘all in’, their chance to catch the World Cup champions slightly off kilter at the start of a series, and it very nearly ran their way.

As in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, there is a sense that South Africa’s biggest enemy is their own lack of ambition; a confounding refusal to believe in their ability to play rugby outside of a set of narrow, self-determined constraints.

Of course, we all know how things panned out last time those observations were made, and it is clear that the Springboks’ official coach and unofficial coach know their players, and South African rugby DNA better than anyone.

For now, as long as they keep winning and the building blocks remain in place for next year in France, such conversations will remain moot.

Argentina also delivered at home for new coach, Michael Cheika, handling a second-half comeback by Scotland with some authority, to win 26-18.

In case anyone is counting, or is running their own informal global Nations Championship – the one World Rugby has so far proven incapable of facilitating – that’s a clean sweep of wins to the four southern hemisphere, Rugby Championship nations.

Just don’t be surprised if there’s a backlash next weekend, particularly in Brisbane and Dunedin.

Awarding this week’s closing comment was a tight call between referee James Doleman, Manu Samoa captain Michael Ala’alatoa, and a pair of Kiwi commentators in Suva, Jeff McTainsh and Willie Lose.

Considering the degree of passivity by Billy Vunipola in a high tackle on Michael Hooper, Doleman asked for a final replay at normal speed, before making the observation to his TMO, “It looks quicker in real time, doesn’t it?”

Yes, James, it does.

Buoyed by his side’s last-minute 31-26 win over Australia ‘A’, Ala’alatoa fronted the cameras, clearly having taken lessons from his brother Alan, about what to say in a post-match interview.

“Proud of the boys” was thus always going to be short odds, but for good measure, and to keep regular readers of this column happy, Ala’alatoa even managed to squeeze it out a second time!

Both were eclipsed however by McTainsh and Lose – in times where pronunciation of player’s names has gone to a new level of professionalism – insisting that Australia ‘A’s impressive No.7 was named Fraser McCrate.

If every member of that squad isn’t today doing the same, parroting McCrate at every opportunity, I’d be very disappointed.

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