Jack Dempsey is the owner of a perfect Bledisloe record.
Reece Hodge stepped up in the clutch moments to kick two pressure penalties and Lukhan Tui threw himself into the All Blacks defensive line time and time again.
Saturday night’s 23-18 victory over New Zealand not only broke a run of seven straight trans-Tasman defeats for Australia stretching back to 2015, but it may have also heralded the emergence of the Wallabies’ generation-next.
While Dempsey is at the very beginning of his Test career and Saturday night was indeed his first Bledisloe start, the No.6 has shown more in just three Tests than the man he replaced in Bloemfontein, Ned Hanigan.
“There’s a couple of guys that, I thought, deserved it more I guess,” Dempsey said of his man-of-the-match award. “I think Seanny [McMahon] was pretty outstanding, definitely in the second half, and Hoops [Michael Hooper] is always doing what Hoops does. And Hodgy obviously made some big plays and some big kicks. So it was a big surprise, honestly, getting the man of the match. But it’s an individual award for a team effort.”
Dempsey isn’t the owner of a hugely-physical frame, but what he does have is an improving skill set and some neat footwork which often sees him beat the first man in the defensive line. He was in the thick of the action in Brisbane in a determined 73-minute shift, despite admitting the occasion has played on his mind pre-game.
Reece Hodge has scored the first try of the match between the Wallabies and the All Blacks after a great intercept run.
“To be honest, before the game…I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous in my life,” he said. “But once the game starts, once you get your first carry, your first impact, your first tackle, it is sort of just another game. They all sort of are. I think it’s a great learning thing for me as well, just in terms of preparation; just treating each game the same and it’s a pretty fantastic feeling afterwards.”
Hodge’s penalties in the 64th and 78th minutes, meanwhile, came after Bernard Foley had spurned seven points from the kicking tee. In the end, it was the Wallabies’ fly-half who called for Hodge to take over.
“I was actually on the other wing and they pointed to the posts so I came over, and Nardy [Foley] was telling me I was taking it,” Hodge revealed. “I try to be confident from wherever, but I was a bit nervous. But thankfully it went over. He told me to take it, so I did.”
Hodge also contributed the game’s opening try after he swooped on a loose pass from Lima Sopoaga, plucking an intercept before setting off on a 70-metre run to the line. Having been shifted between the centres and back-three during his time with the Wallabies, and reportedly offering fly-half cover as well, Hodge is fast becoming an integral cog in this rebuilding Wallabies outfit.
The significance of the Wallabies’ final defensive set wasn’t lost on Hodge either, the winger recalling the lessons they learned from the heart-breaking loss in Dunedin earlier in the year.
“A bit nerve-wracking, but I think we talked about just sort of trusting our system,” he said of the final two minutes in Brisbane. “I think we went away from that a little bit in Dunedin, probably expected it to happen after we scored that last try. And we were very clear in what we wanted to do for the last couple of minutes tonight. And I guess a penalty for them wasn’t in the plan, but we backed our defence and thankfully it came off in the end.”
Having come on for Rob Simmons – who was cleared of any serious injury after being stretchered off – Tui offered a physical edge the Wallabies have long been lacking and he now must surely be in line to start during the November internationals. His 11 runs may have registered just five metres, but they came in just 37 minutes and showed no signs of slowing.
The emergence of Dempsey and Tui, to join Hodge and even Marika Koroibete, who grabbed his fourth Test try by powering over the top of Damian McKenzie, are a reward for Cheika and his decision to look across the game – and even to the NRL – in Australia for the troops who can take the Wallabies into the future.
They are by no means the finished product and a solitary win over the All Blacks doesn’t call for a ticker tape parade, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
“I’m certainly not going for that headline, I can tell you right now,” Cheika said when asked if he thought he was building a squad of “world-class” players.
“I know that people like to say that but I’d like to think that first…the team we want to build is a team of workers. Working hard when you don’t have the ball, working hard when you do have the ball; off the ball in the places people don’t see you. That’s getting set as early as you can so you’re there for the opposition. That’s what I’d like to think we could layer up first, everyone being like that. And then, from that, we’ll see who wants to kick on and get to the next level.”
If it workers Cheika’s after, the Wallabies coach has something to build on in Hodge, Dempsey and Tui. And perhaps more importantly, they’re all under 24.