After a week in which a massive earthquake slammed the Canterbury region, causing massive damage to Christchurch’s brick and stone buildings (including the home of All Blacks’ assistant coach Steve Hansen), and aftershocks continued to jangle the nerves, nobody will be thanking the AB’s for leaving their winning run quite so late, even if the victory itself will be some sort of salve.
With Daniel Carter undergoing surgery on his troublesome right ankle (which may, in part, explain his poor 2010 goalkicking form), coach Graham Henry took the chance to blood Carter’s understudy, 21 year old Aaron Cruden at five-eighth, together with run on starts for blindside Victor Vito and wing/ fullback (they’re all doing it these days) Israel Dagg. They encountered a Wallabies outfit returning from the Republic who could have reasonably been expected to be weary, but still fired up from their win in Bloemfontein, their first on the high veldt in 46 years. Despite the fact that the match was a dead rubber where the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe were concerned, this was still a game that both teams very much wanted to win – the Wallabies to carry on from last week’s victory, and to gain some momentum leading into next year’s World Cup, the All Blacks seeking to hammer home their dominance over the Wallabies (ten in a row), and to continue a fifteen test match winning streak.
What ensued was, for the most part, very much a reversal of the 2010 status quo. The AB’s looked rusty after a 3 week layoff; passes didn’t stick, the lineout was a shambles, and for once they didn’t seem to be getting the rub of the green from South African referee Mark Lawrence, who gave a very nervy, tentative display. The Wallabies were lucky to concede only a penalty when Mils Muliaina went close in the first ten minutes, with Lachie Turner playing the ball on the ground and James O‘Connor making an early tackle on support runner Cory Jane, whilst the Adam Ashley-Cooper try was very much a result of Lawrence getting in the way and failing to blow the whistle when struck by the ball.
Conrad Smith was uncharacteristically shaky on defense, missing a couple of regulation tackles, Ma’a Nonu failed to impose himself on the match in his usual dominating fashion, and Vito was guilty of some of the same flaws in his game that saw Adam Thomson unceremoniously ditched earlier this year – his failure to read a straightforward blindside play by (excellent) young Wallabies number 8 Ben McCalman which resulted in the O’Connor try will have concerned the All Blacks coaches. Front row dynamo Keven Mealamu left the field after twenty minutes with a hamstring injury, second rowers Brad Thorn and Tom Donnelly looked like tired men at the end of a long campaign, and even captain Richie McCaw looked a little off. As for replacement rake Corey Flynn’s lineout throwing – ugh!!
The All Blacks clearly got a roasting at half time – down 14 to 6 at the break, and forced to play catch up rugby as they did in Soweto, some key tactical substitutions finally gave them some ascendancy from about the fifty minute mark. Jerome Kaino replaced Vito, whose athleticism and pace were no match for Rocky Elsom’s street smarts and breakdown aggression. Kaino’s arrival seemed to galvanize Kieran Read and McCaw into adapting the ‘fling it wide and run from everywhere’ gameplan to a more conservative ‘kicking for territory and rumbling it up in the forwards’ approach that swiftly paid dividends with both McCaw and Read crossing for tries that got the AB’s over the line by the narrowest margin possible.
It was heartening, however, to see that they could adapt the game plan when plan A clearly wasn’t working. The All Blacks of 2010, whilst clearly still favouring the ‘run it, don’t kick it’ approach from inside their own 22, are clearly a smarter beast than the headless chook that emerged when placed under pressure in the three matches this game reminded me of – the Melbourne loss and ‘that’ quarter-final in 2007, and the Sydney loss in 2008. They knuckled down, stuck at the task in hand and ground out the win – something great sides are able to do, even if they are not playing particularly well. This has been a testament to the All Blacks’ superior fitness and the superb leadership of their captain.
The AB’s started the Tri-Nations playing a high-octane brand of football that left the opposition gasping for air, and grasping at thin air in defense as the ball was moved so swiftly and efficiently through the hands; and while the Boks and Wallabies may have swotted up and gained some ground on us over the course of the tournament, they have crucially not been able to beat us, even if it has taken last gasp heroics to secure the victories. Furthermore, the ability to switch quickly from defensive mode to attack on turnover ball has been something we have effected more successfully than our opposition.
It is still a bugbear of mine that we attempt short drop-out restarts from the 22, more often than not gifting our opponents instant attacking ball with great field position, and in general Cruden’s restarts were not really up to scratch, but the young man did show some nice touches. Colin Slade, who came on for Cruden in the last quarter also looked assured and composed, and did basic things well in a highly pressured situation.. It turns out that some of our anchor men (Thorn, Donnelly, Nonu, Smith) are actually human after all, and that some of the guys we may have taken for granted (Mealamu, and Jerome Kaino, in particular) are absolutely crucial to the balance of the side. Don’t let’s underestimate Piri Weepu’s faultless goalkicking display here, either, nor the fact that Matt Giteau missed 4 from 7.
I was going to finish by selecting a ‘team of the tournament’, but it is actually a little futile when the All Blacks have won the damn thing so handsomely. Whilst some might argue for the inclusion of the likes of Genia, Sharp or O’Connor (not many Boks putting their hands up), across the park the All Black A-team have been superior in all facets of the game. The end of year tour (another bloody Grand Slam!) is shaping up as a great opportunity to further examine some of the players this year has uncovered at test level, without the pressure of playing against the world’s second and third ranked teams.
– Jeremy Taylor