Thanks to an astonishing form turnaround from the Wallabies, and the familiar traveling woes of the Boks, the All Blacks find themselves in a position where, despite their own struggles this year, they are still in contention to win the 2009 Tri-Nations.
Birthday boy Robbie Deans wielded the selectorial axe ruthlessly (as perhaps Henry should have done), culling halfback Luke Burgess in favour of promising rookie Will Genia, moving makeshift captain George Smith to number 8 to replace the underperforming Richard Brown, and restoring Mark Chisholm, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes to starting roles. Almost without exception, these changes reaped rewards as these players rose to the challenge of defending a proud 38 year undefeated record in Brisbane against the Boks. Genia in particular was superb – snappy passing, hustling feistily around the rucks, and meticulous tactical kicking that suggest Dingo has finally unearthed a worthy successor to George Gregan. Blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, too was nothing short of inspirational.
The Boks, however, looked every bit as shonky and one dimensional as they had looked polished and multi-faceted when they won handsomely (and with a bonus point) in Perth the previous week. Where in Perth previously underperforming marquee players like Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana looked like they had finally broken the shackles of the very limited kick-and-chase game they had employed to great effect at home, here they once again looked one dimensional and utterly unable to put points on the board. The penalties that they have been able to draw with their speed and aggression attacking the ball at the breakdown were simply not forthcoming from English referee Wayne Barnes, who gave a very composed and accurate account of himself (quite unlike the barely contained shambles of Cardiff in ’07 in THAT quarterfinal).
It is this inability to really put a team that is down to the sword that belies claims that this is a truly great Boks side. Just as they failed to put away the Lions in the third test this year, they failed to take a golden opportunity to complete a double header on the Wallabies in Australia; after playing magnificent, flowing, expansive, winning rugby in Perth, they reverted to type in Brisbane and looked dull, flat and uninspired.
With the All Blacks currently sitting on 8 points in the competition, and the Boks on 17, the AB’s will need to come away with two victories and at least one bonus point win in the next two weeks to perform the greatest resurrection since, um, last year and win the Tri-Nations. They will also need to deny the Boks a bonus point for losing by less than 7 – a pretty tall ask, but not unachievable, given that the Boks appear to be conforming to type and underperforming on tour.
Which really begs the question as to which Boks team will show up in Hamilton this weekend – the sleek, streamlined machine that ruthlessly dispatched the Wallabies in Perth, or the feckless, dreary unit who only avoided a 25 point thrashing in Brisbane by virtue of two last gasp, try saving tackles. And then, how best to choose a team and prepare for a team who seems to blow almost as hot and cold as the French.
Surely Stephen Donald deserves the chance to be paired with Dan Carter in the ten/ twelve roles that was afforded to Luke McAlister in Sydney – this gives the left/ right foot kicking option that the Wallabies enjoy with Giteau and Barnes in their backline, and presents the opportunity to test the Boks three quarters with some of the up and unders that the Africans have employed so effectively. Carter and Donald are also fine defenders, which will be crucial to keep the sizable Boks midfield of de Villiers and Fourie in check.
The issue then becomes who takes over Conrad Smith’s vacant 13 jersey, the obvious solution being to move Ma’a Nonu (with his improved distribution and defensive game) out one place. Bringing Mils Muliaina up from fullback has also been mooted, with Cory Jane providing fine cover, but I would suspect Jane is better deployed in place of Joe Rokocoko on the right wing.
The forward rather pick themselves, particularly with Mealamu injured and Tialata out of form and out of favour. The tight five will need to get through a power of work to repel a Springbok pack who will feel they have something to prove after looking decidedly below par in Brisbane – captain John Smit in particular had a torrid time in the scrums against Wallabies loosehead Benn Robinson, and their champion second rowers Victor Matfield and ‘Justice For Bakkies’ Botha were at least matched by the young Wallabies pairing of James Horwill and Mark Chisholm.
The loose forwards will need to play an effective linking game, functioning dually as extra bodies in the tight, and like auxiliary backs in the loose – it looks like Kieran Read will be fit to be selected at number eight over veteran Rodney So’oialo, so the only issue will be whether Adam Thompson’s stellar Air NZ Cup form makes him a contender on the blindside over Jerome Kaino (for my money Thompson is still a bit loose in the role).
Can they do it? Sure they can. Will they? Well, if we knew that there would be no point in playing.
The All Blacks have maintained such a standard of excellence since 2003, that the few games they have lost have been burned into the memory (Rustenberg, Sydney, Cardiff…) Lots of surprises in the Tri-Nations already this year, and it has already held more interest and intrigue than in recent years – is there room for one more dramatic twist in the tale?