How different things might be for New Zealand if Taniela Tupou had chosen the black jersey. By Paul Thomas.
Ian Foster finished his first assignment as All Blacks coach – a de facto four-test home-and- away series against Australia – better off than he started, but only just.
He did what he had to do: retained the Bledisloe Cup. If that trophy had been lost, the sceptical muttering that greeted his appointment and has continued would have swelled to a full-throated roar of "we told you so".
But the body of work – a dominant victory, a convincing victory, a fortuitous draw and an exasperating loss – won't have persuaded many sceptics that maybe he is the right man in the right place at the right time after all.
For all Foster's talk of putting his stamp on the team, their uneven output invites the conclusion that he hasn't drawn a line under his predecessor's era and is yet to get to grips with the failings that became increasingly evident towards the end of Sir Steve Hansen's eight-year tenure: indiscipline and an inability to impose themselves physically on tier-one opponents.
In the All Blacks' 117-year history, five wearers of the black jersey have been sent from the field, as opposed to being sidelined for 10 minutes via a yellow card. Three of those dismissals have occurred in the past three years. And although it's the case that referees no longer see red cards as a sanction to be avoided if at all possible, it grates that all three – Sonny Bill Williams against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, Scott Barrett against the Wallabies in Perth last year and Ofa Tu'ungafasi in Brisbane this month – were for the same offence: the tackler going high and driving his shoulder into the ball carrier's head.
The All Blacks forward pack's failure to achieve physical dominance over a young and largely unheralded Wallaby unit in two of the four matches reinforced what was apparent in the period from the Lions series to last year's World Cup: it can no longer be assumed that New Zealand will have a winning forward platform against the other big teams in world rugby.
The attitudinal component of the forward confrontation is such that even the best don't always summon the requisite intensity and are consequently "out-passioned", to use a term coined by former All Black Andrew Mehrtens. But the All Blacks can forget about regaining best-team-in-the-world status if they're being out-passioned 50% of the time. And bear in mind that for all their promise, the Wallabies aren't as formidable up front as World Cup finalists South Africa and England.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
That said, it's hard to believe Foster and forwards coach John Plumtree didn't watch the final quarter of the Brisbane loss lamenting the one that got away: Wallaby tighthead prop Taniela "the Tongan Thor" Tupou.
Tupou became an internet sensation while at Sacred Heart College in Auckland but spurned the rugby pathway on offer in this country to pursue a career across the Tasman. Quite simply, none of the current All Blacks props or anyone on the horizon here can match his package of size, athleticism, explosive ball carrying and scrummaging power.
It's conventional wisdom that the scrum is Australia's Achilles heel. The All Blacks' scrummaging edge has been a constant factor in their 17 years and counting of Bledisloe Cup dominance, and England have regularly reduced the Wallaby scrum to rugby roadkill. However, when the Wallabies had a competitive scrum in the early- and late-1990s, they had the upper hand over the All Blacks and won two World Cups.
Tupou is 24. He could be anchoring the Wallaby scrum and giving us grief for a decade.