This week’s Bledisloe showdown in Sydney is shaping up as a huge matchup, in which a number of reputations may be salvaged or irreparably damaged – not least of which those of head coaches Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.
Both are coming off a pair of losses, and while their jobs are both (theoretically) safe through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, neither’s paymasters (or public) are likely to be overly thrilled with the way the Tri-Nations has been going for them thus far. Whilst both may protest that they are now starting to build towards 2011, both will be conscious that losses don’t put bums on seats at a time when rugby is struggling to hold people’s attention, and competing for a tightly stretched entertainment dollar.
For the All Blacks, the first step on the road to recovery is the thoroughly warranted return of star playmaker Daniel Carter. Quite aside from the obvious appeal of his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour and underwear modeling credentials, Carter is a superlative footballer who in the past has been able to step straight back into the highest level of international competition after recovering from some serious injuries.
He has looked in fine fettle in a couple of outings for Canterbury, and despite accusations of panic in the All Black camp in rushing him back, this was a decision that had to be made. Carter should be able to exercise a level of control over the backline that Stephen Donald has been unable to muster, although Luke McAlister’s selection outside him at second five is perhaps the most perplexing of Henry’s changes to the starting XV that was so comprehensively beaten in Durban.
Whilst it may be true that McAlister adds a hefty right boot to complement Carter’s left, I am with former All Blacks prop Richard Loe when he states that he has seen nothing from McAlister since his return from England that would have warranted All Black selection, and that kicking seems to be the only aspect of his game that has improved during his time at Sale. To be fair, his path back into the black jersey was to have been via some game time for the Juniors, but with the season ending injury to Richard Kahui, and Carter’s absence leaving the AB’s short of goalkicking inside backs, he was rushed back with what has been called ‘indecent haste’. The jury’s out.
By far the luckiest and unluckiest of those selected (and not) are wing Joe Rokocoko, and stalwart number 8 Rodney So’oialo. Both had good Air NZ Cup outings for their provinces in the weekend, Rokocoko scoring a brace in helping Auckland defeat Northland, and So’oialo coming off the bench to spark a Wellington second half revival that nearly got them over a spirited Bay Of Plenty after a perfectly awful first 40. Rokocoko’s form has been consistently terrible this year; So’oialo on the other hand has been merely adequate – Rokocoko gets picked, So’oialo gets benched in favour of young Cantab Kieran Reid. One also feels for Cory Jane, denied a chance to sharpen his chops with an outing for Wellington by a staunch Jamie Joseph’s refusal to kow-tow to the national selectors.
My ‘Southern Man’ friend will be thrilled with the excising of most of the Wellington contingent – Weepu (injured, but gone), Tialata (too fat, gone), Nonu (can’t kick – benched), So’oialo (umm… benched), Jane (umm…gone from the bench entirely) – in fact, only centre Conrad Smith has survived the cull. When the All Blacks lose they often resemble none so much as the Hurricanes losing yet another game against the Crusaders, and in ditching most of his Wellingtonians, Henry is perhaps seeking to eliminate this comparison – maybe this spells an end to the harem scarem histrionics that failed so dismally in Durban.
In its place, look for an improved set piece; a lot of territorial kicking and a significant improvement in accuracy at the breakdown. Helping this will be the presence of the world’s finest referee, South African Jonathan Kaplan, who shouldn’t have nearly as much problem finding the advantage line as his Northern Hemisphere colleagues, and with whom Richie McCaw has an excellent rapport. The fate of the Tri-Nations may now be out of our hands – to keep it we would need to win all our remaining matches, and for the Wallabies to beat the Boks in Perth, but like I said at the start of the tournament, I think that retaining the Bledisloe means more to most Kiwis anyhow.
– Jeremy Taylor