Last night I witnessed the best game of football I have seen all year. There were no trophies on the line and it wasn’t part of the Rugby Championship but I can tell you that meant very little. What we achieved last night was monumental. The intensity on display was of a level I have not seen in years. For New Zealand playing at that pace and with that ferocity is fairly standard. What was so exceptional however was the force with which it was returned.
I have a real love for the group of players we fielded last night and a real respect for what they have been doing all year. Against South Africa we went toe to toe and just came up short of getting the win. Twice. While incredibly frustrating, it was also heartening. We were not the sort of team that gives up.
We got off to a fantastic start, taking a rare easy seven points to get us going. It wasn’t long though before New Zealand were able to hit back. Throughout the first half I studiously took notes, admiring what it is New Zealand do so well. To keep them out you need nothing short of a brick wall. Their play is smart; they don’t work any harder than they need to. They seem at times to have the ball on a string; placing it exactly where we weren’t and gaining free metres after every kicking exchange.
Heading into this match it was what I expected to happen. Our weaknesses all season have been our kicking around the field and our efforts at the breakdown. There was a lot of dropped ball, expected given the conditions but the pressure we were under when we had possession was immense. Regardless of whether New Zealand are attacking or defending, they undertake both with equal intensity.
Running the ball through their defensive line is like swimming against the tide. To make any progress takes a doubled effort, with real grit and determination. Eventually our efforts paid off and after stringing together a number of phases we found ourselves with front foot ball and Folau found himself over the line. Approaching half time we had managed to put ourselves back in the game and a small shift of momentum had begun.
After the delay resulting from the injury of Rob Simmons, I was worried we might struggle to return to the intensity needed to finish what we had started. I needn’t have been concerned. It was like the turning of the tide. We were confident in kicking for touch and confident in our ability to score tries and capitalise on our ascendancy.
At times, the actions of the All Blacks seemed desperate and silly mistakes cost them. Our momentum by this point was undeniable and my notes were becoming something more akin to scrawl. At the 63rd minute mark I knew that had we been playing against any other team, I would have felt confident we would win. Things were so clearly going our way, I wanted to believe. But it was New Zealand.
By the 68th minute, I had thrown my notebook and abandoned all studious behaviour. I was gripped. As the clock slowed and our four point lead became two, I became a complete wreck. My mind was ticking over, analysing just how many points we had left out there through inaccurate goal kicking. By the 73rd minute, I was rocking back and forth, consumed by anxiety and praying for a miracle.
The final minutes were pure agony. Hodge kicking the monster penalty goal and then New Zealand winning possession after sloppy work at the break down let us down. However the final play of the game summed it up. They cracked, under (can you believe it) pressure. Our pressure.
It was the most inspiring performance I have seen in a long time. Guys like McMahon and Dempsey having enormous impact and throwing themselves into the game at every opportunity. Guys like Foley and Beale, getting thrown around by the All Blacks and jumping straight back up for another go.
Beale really stood up and could be seen screaming at the troops, firing them up and injecting the passion he so clearly has into them. I wasn’t surprised when he departed at the 70 minute mark after once again running himself to a stand still. Cheika has spoken about fitness a lot this season and seeing how we stayed with New Zealand, at that ridiculous level of intensity and pace, for 80 minutes I can see that hard work has paid off.
After all the effort these guys have put in this season, they really needed and deserved the win. More importantly, it was the kind of game that rugby needs. Yes, the scrum still caused frustration and continues to be a penalty fest, but ultimately, watching two incredible sides give their all for 80 minutes is the best entertainment you will find.
Sure, it was just one game. Sure, New Zealand still walk away with the silverware. But if you were going to win just one game, let it be a game like that and let it be against New Zealand.