Back to the draw-ing board for All Blacks
The sight of an All Black pack being outplayed by a less than vaunted Wallabies eight was almost as alarming as the sombre final scoreline that shone like a warning beacon on the huge screen at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night.
Those digits read 12-12, but for every single New Zealander among the 68,627 in attendance there was no parity. It felt like a loss, and certainly hurt like one. Those sentiments also extended to the players on both sides - the Wallabies exasperated their efforts hadn't produce the victory they so needed in their Bledisloe quest; the All Blacks gutted that, once again, their search to make history had been undone by a trans-Tasman stalemate.
In 2012 in Brisbane an All Black run of 16 straight victories had foundered upon the rocks of an 18-18 draw; now three seasons on it was déjà-vu all over again on a dreadful, tryless night at the cavernous Homebush sporting enclave.
The streak was over. Frustratingly short, once again, of true greatness. Make no mistake, 17 test victories on the bounce was special, but it only puts these All Blacks on a par with their 1964-69 predecessors and those 1988-89 Springboks. Once again, parity.
But something else gnawed away. Are these All Blacks any longer the indomitable force that we like to portray them as? Since that glorious 80 minutes in Johannesburg when they laid the Springboks low with one of the great performances of all time, they haven't gone close to touching those heights again.
The evidence is undeniable: Paris, London, Dublin - struggles all; two tough, testing encounters against the under-manned English at home in June (Never mind the Hamilton romp; by then the tourists were a spent force).
The All Blacks may remain the world's No 1 team, but have the best of the rest all but closed the gap? There have been too many anxious moments, too many narrow escapes not to at least consider the prospect.
The Wallabies certainly have a belief about them now that will only be energised by
their efforts here. Their forwards won their battle against the All Blacks - conclusively if the stats are any guide. Two of those big men had just three caps between them, so you know there's now no fear there for this black pack.
The Wallabies, truth be told, blew a gilt-edged opportunity to get one hand on the Bledisloe. They created the best chances, the pressure points. They spent 20 minutes a man up. It was they who finished the stronger and should have put the All Blacks away if they'd been a little more clinical.
Their decisions late in a first half they ended up trailing 9-3 to turn down several kickable penalties may have ultimately cost them the victory; but they also demonstrated palpably the confidence, aggression and attacking intent now imbued.
Eden Park on Saturday night - a place where the All Blacks haven't lost in 20 years and 33 tests - now becomes intriguingly pivotal. Can the Wallabies back it up? Can they end a second streak in as many weeks? What will the All Black response be? Will there be any casualties on the selection front?
Venerable second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu is in major doubt with a shoulder injury that will be scanned today. "I'd say we'll be sweating on whether he's right or not," declared a less than confident coach Steve Hansen yesterday.
Jerome Kaino, too, has issues with an elbow injury, though new dad Conrad Smith will likely return at centre after his paternal dash home on Friday.
Hansen yesterday defended his lacklustre forwards with a veiled dig at referee Jaco Peyper who had a shocker. "If we're not getting continuity and the referee is penalising you it's very difficult to get dominant platforms. We've got to have a look at some of that stuff and work out if we're in the wrong, and if we're in the right then what we're doing causing him to think we're in the wrong."
Traditionally the All Blacks respond well from a sub-par effort. And traditionally the players who produced it get a second chance to atone. Wyatt Crockett and Cory Jane might be among those keen for that.
"There's a lot of disappointment in the group for a number of reasons," Hansen said. "When we select the team it will reflect what we are about and it will reflect in the team we think can beat Australia."
And the draw that felt like a loss? "Any loss is disappointing, it hurts and you dig deep. We're trying to dig deep when we win so we don't have to experience this, but we have so there's a silver lining in everything I guess."
The Aussies will again come in attack mode. Maybe it's time for the All Blacks to do likewise.