The 2017 Rugby Championship is over and New Zealand are the champions.
But who were the standout performers in the tournament? Here’s our best XV.
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This was a great Test and one that was desperately needed to restore some of the battered pride in Australian rugby.
In the end it was a few moments of All Blacks genius in the 78th minute that clinched an absorbing match, but the Wallabies did enough to win it and will be bitterly disappointed to lose.
Indeed if Bernard Foley had not had an extremely off day with the boot – striking the post a remarkable three times – Australia would have claimed a famous victory.
It’s harder to remember a greater turnaround in international sport than the Wallabies over the last seven days.
Diabolical in the opening 50 minutes against the All Blacks last weekend in Sydney to go down 54-6, they have outscored mighty New Zealand 57-35 over the next 110 minutes.
Last week the Wallabies made 112 tackles and missed 32, this week they made 149 tackles and missed 34 – a six per cent increase in efficiency.
There was no greater difference than No 8 Sean McMahon. In Sydney he was a passenger chasing shadows. In Dunedin he was breathtaking, a constant presence in both defence and attack; making metres with the ball in hand and driving the All Blacks with his ferocious tackling.
Compare his stats: in Sydney he made eight runs for 11 metres and six tackles; in Dunedin 13 runs for 31 metres and 11 tackles. McMahon has always had potential but this was the first time he really delivered on the world stage.
But he was not the only plus for the Wallabies. Kurtley Beale, two games back into his Test career after a season in England, had one of his best games in a Wallaby jersey and his defence on Sonny Bill Williams was staggering.
I have been extremely critical of new flanker Ned Hanigan but for the first time he looked at home in the Test arena – making tackles, disrupting opposition ball and generally being a nuisance.
Scrum-half Will Genia was back to his best, setting up a try and scoring another, as was Israel Folau, Foley (except for his kicking) and Tevita Kuridrani.
Captain Michael Hooper was also impressive in attack but his six missed tackles proved costly, especially on Aaron Smith right on half-time that gave up a crucial try.
The Achilles heel for the Wallabies was the scrum with All Blacks tighthead prop Nepo Laulala announcing himself as a major new force decimating the Aussie scrum.
If Australia are to win these tight matches they must find a point of weakness in the All Blacks set-piece. New Zealand won all nine scrums and all 13 lineouts. With that set-piece stability the All Blacks are very difficult to beat.
The Wallabies also must be more aggressive at the breakdown. The penultimate try from the All Blacks was scored after 22 phases and you simply cannot give New Zealand that consistent possession. Australia just can’t sit back and expect to hold them out.
But the All Blacks’ performance overall will have deepened the furrows in Steve Hansen’s brow. One off day can be dismissed as an aberration but there are issues that need to be addressed. New Zealand missed 13 tackles and turned over possession in attack 17 times – concerning numbers for any team.
The All Blacks have tough away trips to come in The Rugby Championship to South Africa and Argentina and maybe, just maybe, the Pumas – and especially the Springboks – will start to believe they are beatable.
Such is the All Blacks’ confidence going into Saturday’s Rugby Championship rematch against Australia that they have shrugged off the loss of veteran prop Owen Franks by calmly slotting in a raw replacement, Nepo Laulala.
Against a backdrop of honouring Colin Meads, the New Zealand great who passed away last Sunday, the All Blacks are threatening to be even more dominant than they were during last week’s 54-34 drubbing of the Wallabies in Sydney.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has tried hard to talk up Australia as a “very dangerous beast” going into the second round Rugby Championship match in Dunedin.
But even after replacing the 95-Test veteran Franks – who pulled out Thursday because of a troublesome Achilles – with the four-Test Laulala, the All Blacks should again be far too strong.
For while Hansen has talked up the wounded Wallabies, his real focus has been on demanding the world champion All Blacks atone for their sub-par end to the first Test.
After scoring eight tries in the first 55 minutes, a sloppiness crept into their game that allowed Australia to come back with four tries of their own.
“You’ve got to keep working, you’ve got to keep your attention on what you want to do rather than taking a big sigh and a breath,” Hansen said on the need to play hard for 80 minutes.
“The opposition are going to keep working so you have to too. Our attention went to the scoreboard … as a result of that we threw poor passes, our skill execution was poor, our defence was poor. There wasn’t too much that was good, really.”
New Zealand attack coach Ian Foster believes part of the All Blacks success stems from the Wallabies being too predictable with their game plans.
“They have been consistent with that for a couple of years, to be fair,” he said.
“We kind of expected to see what we saw in the midfield Will they change it? I am not sure.”
Hansen has largely kept faith in the same starting line-up apart from the late injury to Franks and the return of hooker Dane Coles, who has been cleared of the concussion symptoms which sidelined him for most of the year.
The Wallabies, plagued by attack inaccuracies and a porous defence last week, have made three changes, including the gamble of replacing lock Rory Arnold with Rob Simmons.
Coach Michael Cheika said it was time for Simmons to prove himself after being shown the door by the Queensland Reds following a disappointing Super Rugby season.
It is “an opportunity for Simmons to put his foot down,” Cheika said. “I think it’s time he puts a marker down for his international career as well in dominating that lock position.”
The other two Wallaby changes were expected, with Tevita Kuridrani in for Samu Kerevi and a fit again Dane Haylett-Petty taking over from Curtis Rona on the wing.
Rather than fret about their poor first half last week, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has highlighted how their game clicked in the second half to score 28 unanswered points.
“We spoke (at half-time) about putting them under pressure and it started to work,” he said.
But while Kuridrani, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau showed they could stretch the All Blacks, by then the game was over and the All Blacks had eased up.
Hansen does not want a return of such complacency this week, with the roofed Otago Stadium offering conditions ripe for another high-scoring spectacular.
The Australians “will be hurting so that will make them even hungrier than they have been … they’ll be a very dangerous beast,” Hansen said. “I would expect them to be a lot more physical than they were last week.”
The All Blacks will also be inspired by playing in memory of Meads, an icon of New Zealand rugby.
Both sides will observe a moment’s silence before the match and afterwards All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock, who plays in the number five jersey Meads wore for 47 of his 55 Tests, will present his shirt to the Meads family.