As has happened before, the All Blacks win at Eden Park was both comfortable, and one where a new star was given his first opportunity to shine.
Caleb Clarke had his first start with the national team, after debuting from the bench a week earlier. And as the 21-year old demonstrated his monster athletic form, the right decision had been made. Another star was on show, who could yet again prove that a ‘power winger’ was invaluable to the New Zealand team.
His intent alone played a large part in the attitude of the side who played on Sunday afternoon. Running out onto Eden Park – christened Coopers Catch Park in a sponsorship promotion – an unbeaten record against the Wallabies since 1986 was on the line. By the end of the opening 40 minutes though, it was clear that it was not who would win but, by how much?
Clarke, alongside the gritty Dane Coles, Aaron Smith, and a returned Anton Lienert-Brown, all brought more steel to the second Bledisloe Cup test. One where an All Blacks win was both a positive display, as well as a sort of deja vu.
— RugbyRocks.com (@rugby_rocks) October 18, 2020
A new star found, as All Blacks win comfortably
Fans had seen this before time and time again. With the drawn test match, Aussie supporters again would be super confident that it was ‘their time’. However, when the heat was put on, some of the players who shone in Wellington; Marika Koroibete, Nick White, and Taniela Tupou were undone by over anticipating their chances.
Not to say that the Wallabies were upset but, micro-skills were absent and when the missed tackle count hit 20 before halftime, head coach Dave Rennie began to sense a recurring dream. How one week the Aussies exceed expectations but, any pregame hype is much overstated. As has occurred over the last half dozen years, the reality of facing New Zealand hits home at the fortress that is Eden Park.
And Caleb Clarke had an outstanding individual, he was like a pinball, how he bounced his way through the defense. It brought the crowd to their feet, embarrassing many Australian defenders. His effervescence was palpable. Youthful and with pure enthusiasm, many were impressed and some even began to recall the blockbusting Jonah Lomu.
While that comparison would only make the humble Blues player blush, when the camera panned to his father, former All Black Eroni Clarke in the stand, a prouder dad there was not. Beaming with pride, his son was an exhibition in enthusiasm and raw talent.
📽️ We now present you with a Caleb Clarke highlights reel. Enjoy.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) October 18, 2020
Supported well by Beauden Brrett, the two-time World Player of the Year himself was breaking tackles at mercy. Emboldened to launch attacks from his fullback position, those too would make the highlight real. It was classic Barrett; and his brother Jordie was again solid, while Scott Barrett make a cameo off the bench to assure the coaching staff that he could meet the return to an All Blacks side once again meeting their mark.
Wallabies submit to better All Blacks all-round game
Unsettled by the improved New Zealand team, only at times did this group resemble the one who drew with the hosts a week earlier. Either encumbered by expectation or negated by a more forthright home side, the delivery from the Wallabies was stilted. Almost like the roles were reversed.
Ned Hanigan was one who was brought in to combat an expected All Blacks game. Like Harry Wilson the week before, the blindside flanker made the most of his opportunities. His breakout led to a try, one that should have improved his teammate’s performance yet, they dropped too much ball to gain continuity.
Opposing him, NZ captain Sam Cane seemed to go to another level. Still tackling like a devil, he now brought a better awareness of where the attack was heading to. His own try was a great reaction to pressure on him from the poor Chiefs’ 2020 season from hell. If not unwarranted, critique might have been the inspiration for a player who has for many years had to follow in the steps of one of the greatest ever.
With two tests into his first term, a better display gave fans clarity on his place. The reaction from his own players was clear to see.
TRY Time, Sam Cane gets in on the action.
— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) October 18, 2020
When interviewed post-match, Cane revealed “a lot of pressure this week, we stuck to our plan and in the end, we managed to break them. We challenged our forward pack to take them on upfront, carrying hard, cleaning hard. Typical Aussie fashion they did not roll over, but that’s test match footy.”
He would have also been impressed by his new star winger too. Cane told SkySport, “he is a very special player. He didn’t let anyone down”. Never a truer word said, as Clarke received a standing ovation when subbed in the second half.
Yes, one game does not make a world-beater although, the likes of Joe Rokocoko, Julian Savea, and even back to Inga Tuigamala have all gone from bright starts to being world-class wings. The model is there to be compared to, and sometimes imitation is the best form of flattery.
Big left wing is vital to New Zealand’s backline options
New Zealand should be pleased that when experimented with, the big left winger has performed brilliantly. Going from Auckland age-grade rugby to the All Blacks Sevens, Clarke has excelled at every stage, especially in this years’ Super Rugby Aotearoa.
George Bridge is equally skilled, yet would he have been so brutal in fending off Hunter Paisami, Tom Banks, and James O’Connor? A different player in physique, yes, and in attitude clearly. Bridge and even Sevu Reece can play around the opposition and while they can also play front-on; as Clarke can also run around defenders, yet they haven’t proved as lethal in their times in black.
Rieko Ioane is still a consideration for the outside back role. While hoping to step in one spot to center, there is nothing to say he cannot still perform as a number 11. So options are available for a wider squad to travel across to New South Wales, when that group is confirmed late this week.
So there is now real competition for the left-wing spot, and that is of huge benefit to NZ rugby.
Note: on Thursday, George Bridge suffered a pectoral injury that will rule him out for the rest of the International season.
The two teams now head to Australia where they complete two further Bledisloe Cup matches, before the re-jigged Tri-Nations. With this All Blacks win, it will require much more from Australia before their supporters will again hold up hope of challenging for the title.
And it will be another year before they can next attempt to win at Eden Park for the first time since 1986.
New Zealand 27 – Tries: Aaron Smith, Jordie Barrett, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane; Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (2); Penalty: Mo’unga
Australia 7 – Try: Marika Koroibete; Con: James O’Connor
“Main photo credit”