Guest Post: "It Could have Been Worse…"

The All Blacks have the 2010 Tri-Nations all but in the bag after a third bonus point win, this time over a willing, but ultimately outgunned Wallabies outfit in Melbourne.

After both teams had routed the world champion Springboks using a similarly pacy game plan in the previous three weeks, anticipation ran high for a high-paced, high scoring game, and with a whopping 49-28, seven tries to three scoreline, no-one should have come away disappointed. Indeed, the only disappointment for All Blacks supporters would have been that their team allowed a Wallabies side down to 14 men in the second half to remain in the match.

A freakish start in which Dan Carter, and then Berrick Barnes had defensive clearing kicks charged down and tries scored set the scene for a game that, whilst being consistently entertaining, was at times an almost bizarre spectacle. The ball seemed to be almost constantly in play, and the much talked about playing surface at Melbourne’s covered Etihad Stadium was barely tested, with a paucity of scrums – it was only at the very end that it started to cut up in the left hand corner of the AB’s 22. Kicking was again minimal; ergo neither high ball reception nor lineouts were really a factor. One would have to conclude that the set piece is just not as important as it once was – something the Northern Hemisphere controlling powers will no doubt be desperate to address before next year’s World Cup.

If last year it was crucial not to be caught in possession, this year it is efficiency in the cleanout, on fringe defense around the ruck, fitness, and an ability to play an accurate game at breakneck speed that is doing the damage. To this end, Drew Mitchell’s silly yellow card for a late and dangerous tackle, followed by another for batting the ball away to prevent the AB’s taking a quick lineout throw represented negative, spoiling tactics, and were punished with a red card in the only way available to referee Craig Joubert (who was, it must be said, fairly officious).

Perversely, losing Mitchell seemed to galvanize the Wallabies into throwing caution to the wind, and they scored two second half tries after he had vacated the field, but these were somewhat akin to Lance Cairns smashing sixes in games the Black Caps had already lost – pissing in the wind. You still had the feeling that with a four try bonus point secured by half time, the All Blacks had the match pretty well sewn up – although, as Robbie Deans admitted in the post match wash-up, it could have been so much worse.

Deans is now 1 from 9 against Henry’s AB’s, and has lost the last 8 on the trot; however, surely most of the blame for this imbalance must be laid squarely at the feet of the players themselves – you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit. Only skipper Rocky Elsom, impressive openside David Pocock and fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper looked world class, and genuinely capable of troubling their All Black opposites in Melbourne. They lack options in key positions – number eight Richard Brown was poor, likewise centre Rob Horne (especially when compared to Kieran Read playing out of his skin and Conrad Smith marshalling the All Black midfield game in attack and defense). The Wallabies are playing the right sort of game, a game very similar in style to Henry’s men, but they are doing it significantly less efficiently, and with a good deal less skill.

Henry, for his part, looks to have the key elements of a truly great team in place – strong leadership from seasoned, proven international performers; young players rising to the challenge of test match football and providing X factor and excitement; as well as astonishing fitness and technique. He has competition for places within the side from within and from outside of the squad – he can even, apparently, afford to ignore the imperious form of the likes of Hosea Gear. He has the luxury of giving youngsters like Aaron Cruden late game time alongside Dan Carter, the man he must ultimately replace. And he has players who may once have been regarded as strictly second tier or stopgaps (Tom Donnelly, Jerome Kaino, Corey Jane) performing like champions. At the risk of tempting fate, I wonder if a little rotation is now in order to try and develop some alternatives in key positions?

A final word – the referees are having far too much impact on some of these matches, but it may not be entirely their fault. All the yellow cards that have been flying in these tests have been largely justified according to the rule application, but it has been to the detriment of the games as spectacle and contest. Drew Mitchell’s red in this game was perhaps largely due to Rocky Elsom’s inability to establish any rapport with referee Craig Joubert – similar to Bakkies Botha’s yellow in Auckland, Danie Roussow’s yellow in Wellington, and in contrast to Richie McCaw being penalized four times in Wellington for breakdown infringements, and not carded at all.

All anybody is asking for is consistency – maybe it is just the sheer velocity and speed that the game is being played at that is making it hard for the refs to make accurate decisions in the heat of the moment, but surely there is room for these experienced refs to apply some common sense – maybe this is what is fuelling Peter de Villiers increasingly paranoid rants?

– Jeremy Taylor

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