It was a win born of necessity, rather than of the All Blacks’ tactical and physical supremacy, but in the context of this year’s Tri-Nations, it will just about do, and the obvious glee with which Graham Henry greeted the victory in Sydney after a bloody battle was plain for all to see.
Despite protestations from Wayne Smith (and the man himself) that Daniel Carter was not the cavalry coming over the hill to save the All Blacks from the worst start to a season in living memory, that in fact was almost exactly what he was – the 14 points he carved off with his boot, coupled with his deft and astute tactical kicking was by and large the difference between the two teams, particularly with his opposite Matt Giteau having a curiously quiet night. It also highlighted just what the AB’s have been lacking in terms of direction and control in their backline. Yep, sorry folks – he really is that good.
The contentious selection of Luke McAlister at second five amounted to very little in the end, particularly after he seemed dead set on showing just how badly knocked about you can get with poor tackling technique, and he was replaced by the man he usurped, Ma’a Nonu. Sitiveni Sivivatu again looked dangerous with ball in hand, while his wing partner and cousin Joe Rokocoko yet again offered precious little that Cory Jane, Hosea Gear or a number others would not have.
The rules again conspired to reduce the spectacle of the match to a one-try affair, and (usually excellent) referee Jonathan Kaplan gave a peculiarly home-team biased display that saw him overruling All Black tries to Jimmy Cowan (obstruction, a 50/50 call at best), and Dan Carter (a very questionable forward pass), as well as being every bit as whistle happy at the breakdown as his Northern Hemisphere contemporaries.
Most curious were some of Robbie Deans’ tactical decisions. Firstly, George Smith is unconvincing as a captain in Stirling Mortlock’s absence – it really seems to affect his ability to do his job at the breakdown, as though he is reluctant to draw the referee’s attention to himself – he also had a quiet match. Perhaps Nathan Sharpe, who has deputized for George Gregan in the past, may have been a better choice.
Secondly, playing Adam Ashley-Cooper at centre to accommodate teen sensation James O’Connor at fullback left the relatively inexperienced Wallaby three-quarters without much by way of direction – he would perhaps have been better left at fullback with league convert Ryan Cross in the midfield. And finally, pulling tighthead prop Al Baxter after just half an hour reeked of desperation – if you were going to pull him for doing exactly what he has done expertly for most of his career (folding in and collapsing when the Wallaby scrum is under pressure), why bother picking him in the first place? This in particular must have had the All Black forwards licking their chops, and the sight of Australian hooker Stephen Moore mopping up gallons of blood from the nose that was spread across his face was hugely symbolic.
The first forty minutes of this match did very little to allay the fears that the clumsy handling and inaccuracy that plagued the All Blacks South African visit were still a problem – they spent most of the game playing catch up rugby, and conceded far too many kickable penalties. That the win was secured, albeit right on the cusp of 80 minutes, and by a solitary point, is a testimony to the steely resolve of a hugely improved second half effort from the tight five, and of returning superstar Carter, particularly after his horribly flubbed drop goal attempt.
Rather than falling apart when he does things wrong (as Donald has, as Carlos Spencer did), Carter has the ability to pick himself up, dust himself down and play the cards he is dealt; in this instance a superbly judged kick into the corner that left the Wallabies scrambling in defense that drew the match winning penalty, which he slotted with clinical precision. His return to the side has had the same effect as McCaw’s did to the 2008 All Blacks, and with the Springboks on the road now, NZ supporters will be willing Deans’ Wallabies to lift themselves from these defeats and do the business against the Africans in either Perth or Brisbane. Or preferably both.
The All Blacks do have some problems of their own though – injuries to both starting midfielders Luke McAlister (broken cheekbone) and Conrad Smith (recurring hamstring injury) means we are in need of a fresh midfield combination for the all important match against the Springboks in Hamilton. It will be interesting to see whether the selectors persist with a kicking option at 12, which could see the much maligned Donald given a chance to prove himself in tandem with Carter, and Nonu moved to centre; or if the fragile confidence of Isaia Toeava is to be given another shot.
One thing is for certain, however – that Carter was more than ready to return to the international stage, and would be the first name you would write on the team sheet so long as he is fit.
– Jeremy Taylor