Higginbotham blemish as Australia step up

PAUL CULLY
Last updated 05:00 23/10/2012
Higginbotham
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SIDELINED: Scott Higginbotham has been banned for two games for his hits on Richie McCaw.

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The Wallabies have signalled they are worthy rivals, Paul Cully writes. 

Rugby's difficulty at dealing with an unwelcome visitor, the drawn test, has produced a divergence of views about Saturday night's absorbing third Bledisloe test.

The critics have pointed to the high error rate, and the lack of tries, as evidence of the limitations of both sides on the night. There is truth in this.

Passes from All Blacks hands that normally find secure recipients hit the turf and their No 8, Kieran Read, wondered afterwards whether they had treated the Wallabies' set-piece with enough respect.

Lineout overthrows from the home side were responsible for heart palpitations among the faithful.

However, that tells only part of the tale. The Wallabies, tactically and physically, finally identified themselves as potential competitors of the world champions, rather than the meek inferiors of the first two Bledisloes.

Their ball carriers blasted into contact, and sometimes beyond it.

Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith were seen falling off tackles. The supporting cleanouts were prompt and full of aggression.

Kurtley Beale sought out gaps and looped around Pat McCabe. He offered variation.

And at last they have a centre in Ben Tapuai who can beat a man and offload in contact. There is a long way to go yet - and a long way to the All Blacks - but the coming trip to Europe now looks like it could be some fun.

The obvious controversy cannot be ignored. Scott Higginbotham crossed the line and should be banned for his work on McCaw's head. Pre-game assumptions that the dislike between the two sides had eased might have to be revised.

One view in New Zealand is that an example should be set and an eight-week ban would be appropriate but it is difficult to predict Sanzar outcomes.

The precedents suggest a lesser period. Ireland's Jamie Heaslip received five weeks for two knees to the All Blacks captain's head that were more vigorous than Higginbotham's first act, while Springboks second-rower Eben Etzebeth collected two for an attempted Liverpool kiss on Nathan Sharpe.

Regardless, the big No 6 has to pay for his dark moments.

The head has to be protected. There is already too much neck-grabbing and yanking in the breakdown.

Subtler and more enlightened thinking from the Wallabies was in evidence from the kickoff. There are few coincidences at this level and when All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith's clearance was charged down by Adam Ashley-Cooper in the opening seconds, it had training-ground practice stamped all over it.

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The tool used to create the pressure is a new and welcome one for Australia - Beale's deep, hanging restarts, first seen in Rosario.

Seven minutes in and Ashley-Cooper tapped back another one into Wallaby arms and Australian fans looked at each other in delight. In the second half, Beale pinned Ma'a Nonu back with another beautifully accurate drop from half-way.

These sound like mere details but the cumulative effect is to put a side in areas where they cannot play.

The All Blacks - who appeared uncomfortable in the heat and humidity - lacked rhythm. The hosts gave them something new to think about.

Perversely, the purity of the Wallabies' renewed purpose was seen at its best just after one of their worst moments. When Tatafu Polota-Nau lobbed a lineout miles above his own jumpers and into the arms of McCaw metres from the Wallabies' line in the 65th minute, he must have been consumed by dread.

On the same ground against the Reds in July, a similar set-piece calamity gifted a soft try to Queensland.

And on this occasion, with the score at 15-12 to the Wallabies, the possible repercussions were more severe.

Yet just when it looked like the All Blacks would pile over for a crucial score, Australia scrambled. Nathan Sharpe - and hasn't the side rallied around his leadership - shifted his frame from the lineout to the try line to prevent McCaw's progress and for the next minute the repeated assaults from the New Zealanders' low numbers were repulsed. Seldom has Owen Franks made less headway.

Finally, they were forced wider, and the Wallabies were happy to concede a penalty by flooding the breakdown in front of the posts.

This is the winning of test matches - or at least not losing - as well as the silky back-line moves. Here was the full-blooded commitment to a cause that sides can be built on.

This might not be the stuff for the highlights reel but the debate in Australia can get bogged down in what constitutes attractiveness.

Yes, a greater portion of domestic market share would be pleasing but there is more substance to this game than plentiful tries.

Besides, when the Wallabies go to Europe next month, crowds totalling more than 200,000 will pour through the gates to watch them. On the evidence of Saturday night, and Rosario before it, they will face them with cautious optimism.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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