For all the criticism of the All Blacks this year, Saturday’s 38-0 win against Argentina in Newcastle showed they are still capable of winning most games that matter.
New head coach Ian Foster had a checkered beginning to his tenure, recording three wins, two losses and a draw in the Bledisloe Cup/Tri-Nations series.
Back-to-back upset losses to the Wallabies and Pumas in the preceding weeks meant the return Test against Argentina was effectively a Tri-Nations grand final.
And the Kiwis responded the way they almost always do when there is something at stake – they won, and will now fly home to New Zealand with the Bledisloe Cup and the Tri Nations trophy. Unless, of course, the Wallabies beat the Pumas by more than 100 points at Parramatta on Saturday night to overcome a huge differential.
The ability to lift when required is a major difference between the All Blacks and Wallabies, who have lacked a championship-winning mentality for much of the last decade.
Occasionally they spring an upset in a series opener or a dead rubber. Rarely, though, in a decider.
The disappointing 15-all draw with Argentina in Newcastle the previous week was a classic example of this failure to deliver when the pressure is really on.
How can the Dave Rennie’s side regain the capacity to win the big games that count? It has to start in Super Rugby. When trans-Tasman rugby resumes Australia’s teams must be competitive with the New Zealanders.
Australia needs at least one, if not two or three, competing for the title every year, the way they did from 1996 to 2005, which coincided to a large extent with the Wallabies’ last golden era.
When Australian players are successful at the Super Rugby level they bring that winning mentality into the Wallabies.
But with an increasingly thinning talent spread over five franchises, that goal will only become more difficult to achieve.
The Australian teams operate under a salary cap, which is expected to be significantly lowered following the signing of a new broadcast deal with Nine Entertainment Co for much less cash than the previous agreement.
The exodus of Australian players overseas shows no sign of abating and may worsen if Rugby Australia is unable to guarantee 100% payment of player contracts – both the Wallabies and Super Rugby – from 1 January.
So, how will Australia produce a champion Super Rugby team amid these difficult financial circumstances?
Unlike AFL and NRL sides, their Super Rugby counterparts are largely a means to an end – to prepare players for Test rugby. But that does not suggest they are unimportant or lacking in value. Quite the opposite.
If five relatively even Australian teams are not good enough to compete against the Kiwis for the title, RA may need to manipulate the market to ensure the country has at least two high-quality sides that can transfer a winning mindset to the Wallabies.
Of course, whatever attitude players bring to the national team, the environment must be conducive to a winning atmosphere.
It will be interesting to see how Australia approach their final game of the year.
Will they make a quixotic attempt to score more than 100 points? They annihilated Namibia 142-0 in a 2003 World Cup pool game in Adelaide. But Argentina is not Namibia.
The Wallabies’ biggest win against the Pumas was a 53-6 victory at Ballymore in Brisbane in 2000. A 47-point margin, and nowhere near what they need to rip the Tri-Nations trophy from the All Blacks’ clutches.
So if Rennie accepts scoring more than 100 points against is mission impossible, the options are to settle for a regulation win or experiment for the future. Quite a few players in the wider squad, such as rookie five-eighth Will Harrison, have had little or no game time throughout the series.
This will be Rennie’s last chance this year to see what some of his fringe players can do in the Test arena, but he will need to be careful.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma, who has clearly targeted this week’s match with the Wallabies, may be regretting making wholesale changes against the All Blacks.
Now, instead of winning, a booby prize – the wooden spoon – awaits the loser. And the difference between second and third place matters when it comes to developing a winning mentality.
There is something for the Wallabies to play for on Saturday, even if it is simply avoiding the ignominy of finishing last That in itself is a pressure with which the Australians must learn to deal in big games.
The sad reality is they will never win anything of importance again until they start to think and act like winners in games that really matter.