The Bledisloe Cup will stay in New Zealand's keeping for yet another year after Saturday night's series finale in Brisbane produced a thrilling, if controversial, encounter.
While they lost the series 1-2-1, the Wallabies did triumph in 24-22 in the fourth Test, giving Dave Rennie his first win in charge of Australia and his side a genuine shot of momentum ahead of Tri Nations clashes with Argentina on Nov. 21 and Dec. 5.
But before we forget the annual trans-Tasman showdown altogether, it's worth picking apart the Wallabies' progress under Rennie so far to deliver a Bledisloe Cup report card.
Attack/game plan: C
The change in Australia's game plan was evident from the first Test in Wellington, specifically that they would be prepared to kick far more than they ever did under Michael Cheika, which was almost never. But Australia also had far better shape to their attack than last year, as they sent runners off both Nic White and James O'Connor with Matt To'omua also offering a third playmaking option from inside centre. Unfortunately, first To'omua went down injured in Auckland before O'Connor was then rubbed out of the closing two Tests in Sydney and Brisbane. That forced a reshuffle in each of those two Tests with Noah Lolesio and Reece Hodge taking on the No. 10 jersey; the young Brumbies playmaker struggled while Hodge again showed his worth as one of the most versatile players in the game. But while the Wallabies had a clear approach, for the most part, some of their handling and decision-making was not up to scratch and gave New Zealand plenty of chances on the counterattack as a result, particularly in Auckland and Sydney.
The Wallabies bookended the series with solid defensive performances and even though they conceded the highest number of points in Bledisloe III, in Sydney, they somehow managed an excellent 88 percent tackle percentage at ANZ Stadium. What that says is that New Zealand were particularly brutal on the counter in Sydney, while the All Blacks were also able to exploit Noah Lolesio not defending in the front line and created all kinds of havoc down the short-side, too. But it's the 42 missed tackles in Auckland that really stand out, and the Wallabies' inability to bring down Caleb Clarke, who shed 12 flimsy attempts on his own, that see their defensive mark slip to C-. Many of those misses came in the All Blacks' three-try, 14-minute surge after halftime and resulted in Australia being right in the contest at the break, only to then shift into damage control across the final quarter. Also factored into this mark is the Wallabies' work at the breakdown, particularly on their own ball, which was poor from the outset in Wellington and only improved slightly by the time the final whistle was blown in Brisbane.
Of all the key match components to monitor across Rennie's first four Tests, the scrum is clearly the subject of the greatest positivity. Apart from the odd wobble, the Wallabies pack delivered a sound platform throughout the series and then finished the stronger of the two forward units - albeit in seven-man contests for much of the match - in Brisbane. The sight of Taniela Tupou coming off the bench and working over Alex Hodgman in Brisbane, after Alan Alaalatoa had done a fine job for 55 minutes, should warm the heart of any former Australian front-rower. If Australia is to improve upon its current world ranking of No. 6, they will need to continue their strong scrummaging start under Rennie; it's worth noting that scrum coach Petrus du Plessis finally joined up with the squad ahead of the Brisbane Test, too.
If the scrum affords Wallabies fans genuine scope to be excited about their pack moving forward, the lineout remains an ongoing point of frustration. Terrible in Wellington and only marginally better thereafter, Australia are simply still conceding too many balls on their own throw and they no longer have the Michael Hooper-David Pocock back-row combination to blame either. Folau Fainga'a paid the price for the Wallabies' lineout woes in Wellington and while the accuracy improved slightly once Brandon Paenga-Amosa was brought into the starting side, all three Australian hookers used across the series seemed to have a genuine issue with underthrowing and falling short of their targets. In Brisbane, Australia mixed up their tactics by deliberately throwing long on occasion while lock Matt Philip - who was arguably Australia's most consistent performer across the series - got up to steal a critical ball on the All Blacks' throw just before halftime, offering at least some lineout success. But it should be a clear focal point against Argentina.
Dave Rennie: C+
Asked if he'd been offered a 1-2-1 Bledisloe record before the series had started, Rennie gave an emphatic "no" as that return is never going to be enough to regain the trophy. But to the average Wallabies fan on the street, many of whom might have been expecting a 4-0 All Blacks sweep, one win and a further draw - which was only a lick of paint off being a win - is a little better than just a satisfactory return for Rennie's first four games in charge. The former Chiefs coach has also clearly made an impact on the squad's harmony by working hard on a culture that was broken by the end of last year's World Cup; he has introduced no less than eight new caps and hasn't been afraid to make the big calls, evidenced by Hodge's left-field selection for Bledisloe IV at the weekend. Overall, this appears to be a far more united Wallabies squad than that of 2019, one that has a clear idea of how it wants to play on the field and how it wants to be viewed off it.
What they'll want to achieve against Argentina
Firstly, two victories are simply non-negotiable goals for the Wallabies for when they face the Pumas first in Newcastle and then again in Sydney. James O'Connor appears to be Rennie's man at fly-half and he should therefore reinstate him, providing O'Connor is fit, for the first Test in Newcastle, with Hodge offering cover off the bench. Rennie has lost back-rower Lachie Swinton to a four-week suspension so the No. 6 jersey is again up for grabs, but the starting side that beat the All Blacks at Suncorp Stadium could otherwise be retained. What Australia must do against Argentina however is show a greater respect for the ball and be far more clinical in their cleanout work at the breakdown. While they had just enough breathing room to hold on for victory in Brisbane, Ardie Savea's turnover immediately following the restart for Taniela Tupou's try was reflective of Australia's inaccurate work at the tackle contest throughout the Bledisloe series. Improve those two aspects of their play, along with the misfiring lineout, and Australia should have too much class for Argentina.