Guest Post: Worth a Crack, Nigel

Springbok Champions

Worth a crack, Nigel…

For a town as infamously dull as Hamiltron, this was a thrilling game of football.

Needing to win and prevent the Boks from scoring a bonus point to keep the Tri Nations alive, and preferably gain a four try bonus point, the All Blacks threw everything at this one in the last 15 minutes and came up just a flattering three points short of stopping the Boks gaining a clean sweep over the AB’s to claim the title in 2009.

The line out was, once again, atrocious. After 30 minutes we had lost five of our own throws, with Victor Matfield using his glowering presence and masterful reading of play to turn Andrew Hore and his jumpers into gibbering wrecks. There was a distinct lack of urgency in this phase of the All Black game – we still take far too long to get into position and get the ball back into play, giving Big Vic ample opportunity to exert his influence. As the missus’ ‘colourful’ Uncle Pete summed it up – “I’d rather chew dogshit than watch this…”.

Breakdown penalties conceded in the first half were punished three times in a row from within the Boks own half by the monster boot of Francois Steyn, again confirming that possession is not necessarily of paramount importance in the game’s current incarnation. The Boks much touted scrum weakness was not in evidence, with under-fire skipper and makeshift tighthead prop John Smit more than holding his own against a decidedly weary looking Tony Woodcock.

Brad Thorn, too, looked a shadow of his former swashbuckling self, having shouldered a huge workload this year, and must now be deemed unlikely to still be around in 2011, at the ripe old age of 36. Fortunately, the investment made in youngsters like the impressive Isaac Ross, and the returning-from-injury Anthony Boric should reap rewards come World Cup year. Ditto young front rower Owen Franks, who still has a way to go, but should provide solid cover for Carl Hayman upon his (much needed) return from the UK.

The fact that Stephen Donald was yanked around the 50 minute mark suggested that the double pivot experiment had not been a success (with Henry admitting as much at the aftermatch press conference), Carter looking much more assured running the show on his own, with the more conventional line up of Nonu and Isaia Toeava outside him. And while the erratic Toeava was electric after coming on, making the decisive line break that set up Sitiveni’s try, Nonu had a terrible case of the dropsies – ball retention in contact is still a significant problem in his game (Uncle Pete: “He must have a photo of Henry f***ing a pig to still be in this side”). Carter’s restart kicking was perhaps a little patchy, but his tactical and defensive kicks were top notch, as was his goalkicking – in fact, none of the goalkickers (Carter, and those pesky Steyns) missed a shot all night.

A soft intercept try to Jean De Villiers (Carter, alas) gave the Boks a comfortable lead, before a baffling All Black decision not to take a gift three points when the Boks infringed in front of their posts; then an equally baffling one to goal the next penalty from a similar position – had the hope for that magical bonus point try win (presumably why they took the scrum on the first) evaporated in a couple of minutes?

Adam Thomson and Cory Jane’s (not before time) arrival off the bench seemed to really pick up the tempo against a Bok side visibly wilting in their third game in as many weeks, and when Carter picked out Richie McCaw with a pinpoint crossfield kick, there was a faint glimmer of hope that the AB’s might be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – suddenly they looked more alive, electric and dangerous than they have all season. Carter nailed the conversion in seconds flat, and the All Blacks regathered from the kickoff and continued the assault on the Springbok line, and with time up on the clock Carter attempted another audacious cross field kick to the left hand flank – this time nudging it too far and sending the ball into touch, probably a fitting and symbolic end to a frustrating season.

All is not lost, however (although it sort of will be if we can’t beat the Wallabies in Wellington next week, and end up finishing last…) As we surmised at the start of the Tri-Nations, this was always going to be the Boks year, and man for man they are currently, on the whole, stronger than the AB’s. It’s not even entirely fair to claim our tactics have been inept – mostly it has been a case of poor execution of often basic skills (catch, kick, pass, tackle) that have let us down, and while these things may be easy to do on the training field, they are a damn sight more difficult with (Justice For) Bakkies and the boys bearing down on you.

You could argue that flawed selections have played their role in the ’09 AB’s demise, and certainly the retention of the woefully out of form Joe Rokocoko is frankly baffling. But then the same could be said for so many of our players that if you were to start culling, you could end up with me and Uncle Pete on the field. The lineout is still an A-grade cock up, and forwards coach Steve Hansen must shoulder much of the blame here, given that Mike Cron takes care of the scrum – fortunately, the return of Ali Williams should shore this up. Fading old warriors who have served us well cannot be retained simply out of loyalty, although neither should their experience be cut adrift too hastily. Kieran Read has come on in leaps and bounds, but retaining Rodney So’oialo on the bench is like having some insurance, and also gives Rodders the chance to press his claims for a return to the starting line up.

Luke McAlister’s much touted return to the international arena has been disastrously managed – there are perfectly valid reasons why players have previously been required to play in either the Super 14 or Air New Zealand Cup to gain selection, and McAlister (clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer) has looked woefully out of his depth in a selection that reeked of desperation, and a desire to recoup on what has obviously been a costly investment.

Unfortunately, we have to concede a horrible, horrible thing – that the Springboks of 2009 are a better side than this year’s All Blacks line up, and that three defeats this year at their hands and two consecutive home losses present a pretty compelling argument for their credentials. Congratulations to the Springboks – worthy champions indeed.

– Jeremy Taylor

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