Saturday evening saw one of the great All Black performances of recent years, with the team claiming an impressive, important 32-12, bonus point victory over the much fancied Springboks at Eden Park. As far as victories go, this one is right up there with Paris in ’04 and the second Lions test in ’05 in terms of emphatic, defining wins.
From the outset, there was an intensity to the team’s commitment to getting basics right, and to righting the three losses they suffered at the hands the World Cup holders last year. Nowhere was this more evident than in the performances of three of the more contentious selections – fullback Mils Muliaina, second five Ma’a Nonu, and lock Tom Donnelly. All three gave superb accounts of themselves, despite having had precious little game time of late –Donnelly being excellent around the park, as well as reliable in executing his core tasks, and, perhaps most importantly, disrupting the Boks’ lineout ball; Muliaina really stuck it to the critics who suggested that at 30 years of age, he was past it and ripe for replacement by the up and coming Israel Dagg with a staggering performance in defence and linebreaking counter-attack, whilst Nonu was right back to his belligerent best in midfield, in combination with the magnificent Conrad Smith.
As ever, though, the foundation for the win was laid by the forwards, who all delivered heroically against a massive Springbok pack, with veterans Brad Thorn and Keven Mealamu, and loose forwards Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino all playing superbly. Notably, it is always terrific to win without it being the Carter and McCaw show, but this was a real team effort across the park, and also a victory for the All Black coaching staff, whose tactical game was astutely judged and immaculately executed. Decision making was swift and effective, the set piece was devastating, and the attack lines fresh and inventive.
Where did the Boks get it wrong? For starters, halfback Ricky Januarie is certainly a notch or two (or three) down from first choice scrum half Fourie du Preez, especially with regard to the Boks all-important kicking game, and also in terms of his delivery to first five Morne Steyn, who looked jittery and uncomfortable without the smooth ride he normally gets from his forward pack – Steyn even missed two drop goal attempts. Playing midfielder Jean de Villiers on the right wing seemed to be a folly, as he failed to adapt to the defensive demands of playing out wide under the modern rules, and got caught out several times – in fact, many of the All Blacks tries were scored on his side of the field. Big, dozy lump Bakkies Botha did his team no favours by getting sin-binned for a professional foul – they conceded ten points while he was off the field, and he’ll be watching the rest of the Tri-Nations from the sideline after his brainless headbutt on All Blacks scrum half Jimmy Cowan. And, last but not least, their much vaunted lineout crumpled under pressure from the All Blacks tall timber, proving that even a player of Victor Matfield’s calibre can get rattled.
As for next week, the Boks will obviously regroup and mount a sterner challenge, but this strikes a major psychological blow for this year’s Tri-Nations, and also building towards next year’s World Cup. I wouldn’t imagine Graham Henry making any changes to a winning side – the only players I would have any reservations about here being halfback Jimmy Cowan, who still looks a little laboured in his passing – the lift in intensity when Piri Weepu came off the bench was palpable, and then there’s poor old Joe Rokocoko, who can’t seem to catch a break at the moment – whilst it looks like he is trying hard, he lacks the raw athleticism he had in his pomp. Whilst Ted will almost certainly persevere with him for next week, his days must be numbered, and Richard Kahui again looked sharp off the bench, and then there are discarded/ unwanted options Zac Guildford and Hosea Gear…
All good stuff – here’s hoping we can lift the intensity again next week and really put them to the sword, whilst not ignoring the other team in this competition – the unfancied Wallabies, who will be an altogether different proposition when they get their first choice front row back…
– Jeremy Taylor