DeadBall’s regular guest rugby reporter Jeremy Taylor gives us a mid-term report on the ABs, in his words “a bit like what Marc Hinton has done in [yesterday’s] Sunday Star Times, but I actually started last week, so, fuck him, y’know…”
With the Bledisloe Cup duly secured, and the Tri-Nations all but in the bag following a tighter victory over a much-improved Wallabies in Christchurch, it seems opportune to take stock of where we are at a little more than a year out from the World Cup. Messrs Henry, Smith and Hansen have made some tough calls about the kind of game they want to play (and who they want to play it) that have, for the most part, come off in spades; the team’s fitness and execution have been phenomenal; and to top it all off, they have had the rub of the green from the match officials. Let’s look at some key areas of strength, as well as a few possible weaknesses that the coaches will be keen to address:
The coaches (and players) have responded superbly to the law changes primarily concerned with the tackle ball area. With the tackled player now granted a significantly longer time to release the ball, there is little point committing numbers to attempting to turn the ball over. What seems to be happening is tackles are effected by one defender who goes low, right round the ankles, and another who moves in over the ball in an effort to slow down its’ quick release, and this has been executed hugely effectively, as opposed to the riskier ‘dominant’ or ‘ball and all’ tackles that were prevalent last year. To this end, in Christchurch Dan Carter was topped in the tackle count only by Richie McCaw, and throughout the Tri-Nations, midfielders Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been high in the tackle and ruck stats. This has the flow-on effect of making bigger men like Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read available as ball carriers. Deep kicks for touch are routinely taken as quick throws, nullifying a long kicking territorial game, and with handling being overall pretty good, the number of scrums in a game has also dwindled – much more important for front rowers to be mobile and aggressive than monster scrummaging slabs (bye bye Neemia Tialata). The loose forward roles have also become a lot more similar.
The emergence of quality young players like Victor Vito, Ben and Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Israel Dagg seems to have absolutely brought out the best in the likes of Mils Muliaina, Tony Woodcock, Tom Donnelly and Jerome Kaino. The fact that consistent performances have been rewarded with consistent selection also seems to have helped – if you play well, you can expect to be selected for the next game. The only real problem here is the familiar recent All Black dilemma – how to build depth and provide adequate cover for once in a generation stars like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, and even the dynamo colossus that is the ageless Brad Thorn. I like the way little Aaron Cruden has been brought on for Nonu in these games once they were in the bag, but there is something a little scary about the concept of his starting in a test match, especially against the likes of South Africa. Ali Williams is going to find it tough pushing past Donnelly to partner Thorn in the second row upon his return from injury, while Kieran Read being named as the designated cover for McCaw makes a lot more sense if you look at how the game is being played, with a lot less emphasis on the seven attacking the ball on the ground, and a lot more on ball carrying and link play. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the likes of Tanerau Latimer and the returned Daniel Braid fare in the ITM Cup.
The Rub Of The Green
Whether we care to admit it or not, the All Blacks have had a pretty cushy ride dished out to them by the match officials. From Bakkies Botha’s yellow in Auckland, to Danie Roussow’s in Wellington, not to mention Drew Mitchell’s “2 yellows = red” in Melbourne, the All Blacks have played against 15 men a lot less than anybody else. The fact that Richie McCaw wasn’t carded for four similar breakdown offences in Wellington, and neither was Tony Woodcock for his clumsy charge on Saia Fainga’a in Christchurch really does suggest that the rugby gods are smiling down on McCaw and his men. On another level, it suggests that the All Blacks skipper is becoming very, very good indeed at ‘managing’ referees – exactly as he was unable to do with Wayne Barnes in Cardiff. He is likeable, charming, well-spoken and polite – and given that Jonathan Kaplan spends much of time dealing with big lunks from the Republic, it is quite possible that he has a bit of a man-crush on him…
Boks and Wallabies – not very good?
Quite clearly, the All Blacks have a distinct tactical and psychological advantage over their Tri-Nations rivals at the moment. The Boks had it all over the All Blacks last year with a superbly executed, if limited gameplan, while this year their old guard and leadership core of John Smit, Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana look unfit, uninspired, and well off their game, and ‘political’ selections like Zane Kirschner and Chiliboy Ralapelle are seemingly not at all the best players in their positions (and of course, the same could be said for their coach). The return of stalwart specialist blindside flanker Juan Smith should add some steel and workrate, while Frans Steyn will offer another kicking option, but the Bokke supporters will be praying for a swift return from injury for key scrumhalf and backline general Fourie du Preez.
Robbie Deans, however, is an excellent coach who is steering his side in the right direction (cf their much improved performance in Christchurch), but who currently lacks the tools (ie players) with which to get the job done, and is fast running out of time, and his employers’ patience. Rocky Elsom is resolutely unsuitable as a captain, and Deans will surely be looking to hasten halfback Will Genia, or perhaps openside David Pocock into the role. He will be desperate to break the Wallabies record nine match Bledisloe losing streak, but would of course be forgiven anything if his team are able to do the business at next year’s World Cup.
A peak too soon?
A lot of talk has focused on whether the All Blacks are peaking too soon, and even whether they have ‘shown their hand’ too early. This is, obviously, bullshit. In terms of the sort of game the AB’s are playing, it is obviously a continuation (and significant improvement) of the way they played last year, with the key differences being the law changes making it more effective, and Daniel Carter being infinitely better at implementing it than the hapless Stephen Donald. Whilst other teams will invariably improve over the next year, there is no earthly reason to believe that the All Blacks will not continue to refine their tactics and technique. The talk of ‘greatness’ is perhaps premature, but certainly, steadily, one by one, the boxes are being ticked – leadership, fitness, defense, counter attack, core skill execution, depth, adaptability. plus – it’s been great to watch, as the improved viewer numbers attest.
The great unknown, however, is seeing how this team responds to real pressure – the unforeseen; that which all the preparation in the world cannot prepare you for. It would be good to think that Soccer City in Soweto may provide this examination, but I suspect the Boks have thrown in the towel for this year, conceding in favour of the bigger picture approach, and being ready for next year.
– Jeremy Taylor