Another year, another Tri-Nations, another All Blacks loss to the Springboks.
Despite the altitude and a stupid travel schedule that meant the AB’s had to board a plane within hours of their hard-fought win over the Wallabies in Auckland, this was a game the AB’s totally could have, and even perhaps should have won. I would propose that one key factor contributed to this loss – a lack of accuracy.
Lack of accuracy in all phases of the game, but particularly the renewed problem of the lineout, and the all-important collision area at the breakdown. In much the same way as veteran number 8 Rodney So’oialo was vilified for the single point loss in Rustenburg a couple of years back, this time it was replacement lock Jason Eaton who seemed to cop the King Midas in reverse act – he managed to consistently be in the wrong place at the wrong time, failing to secure an admittedly shonky pass from Piri Weepu with the All Blacks hot on attack, which led to the Jacques Fourie try, and conceding a silly penalty which goal-kicking robot Morne Steyn converted from 55 metres out to put the game firmly out of the tourists’ reach (and lose a bonus point in the process).
Those contentious changes at halfback (Brendan Leonard for Jimmy Cowan) and right wing (Joe Rokocoko for Cory Jane) made you wonder why they had bothered – Leonard looked rusty and conceded two free kicks for failing to put the ball in straight into scrums (which is ridiculous), whilst Smokin’ Joe is barely giving off enough heat to toast a marshmallow, and spent most of the game catching up and unders (just as Jane had done in Auckland – which, admittedly, Joe did perfectly adequately).
Problematic prop Neemia Tialata looked to be trying a bit harder in the opening 40 than he had the previous week, where he failed to make a single tackle, and was consistently the last forward to hit the rucks (btw I dislike seeing tight forwards standing two off the ruck or, wore, in midfield – Tialata is a singularly ineffective ball carrier, and I reckon his lack of workrate means Brad Thorn in particular ends up shouldering a massive workload at the breakdown).
Big Neyza’s next contribution was a numbskulled attempt at a sneaky 22 dropout which put us under more pressure; he then promptly got injured, and was replaced by impressive young Crusaders tyro Owen Franks, who looks as undaunted by test match football as fellow Cantab, lock Isaac Ross. Franks could well get the start next week in Durban, whether or not the Hurricanes tighthead is still crocked, which does beg the question as to exactly why John Afoa has fallen from favour.
Positives? Conrad Smith, who had a massive game on defense in Auckland, was far and away the pick of the All Black backs – his try was an outstanding testimony to a player whose effectiveness comes from his smarts and his running great lines, on top of his excellent tackling technique and ability to read a game, rather than the bullish strength most modern players employ. Stephen Donald backed up a much improved performance against the Wallabies with a solid effort, kicking intelligently and standing tall in defense (proving that he perhaps is fit to keep Dan Carter’s seat on the bus warm).
Jerome Kaino has surprisingly been the pick of the loosies, shouldering a huge burden as senior pros McCaw and So’oialo get back up to test match fitness, and bringing a hard-nosed approach to the game that recalls his immediate predecessor in the number 6 jersey, Jerry Collins. Sitiveni Sivivatu injects some real pace and vision running from the left wing, and looks like he is coming into vintage form, and the bench (with the exception of the aforementioned Eaton, who illustrated perfectly why he has been largely out of favour in the last couple of seasons) has made a real impact. We are developing depth in key areas, and plenty of young players are putting their hands up, which is surely the best thing that can come out of this midway point between World Cups.
Furthermore, there is no great shame in losing to the World Cup champion Boks at home, and at altitude at that – and we have, after all, lost in the Republic virtually yearly under Henry and co. South Africa have some truly magnificent, match winning players – Matfield, in particular, was his usual inspirational self, not only in the lineouts (where they distinctly edged us out), but in general play, where he can sometimes go missing. Hooker Bismarck Du Plessis was also impressive, as was openside newbie Heinrich Broussow, who was named man of the match. What was interesting, however, was which of the Boks big game players failed to ignite – brilliant halfback Fourie Du Preez, second five Jean De Villiers and winger Bryan Habana were all well short of their best.
Which may hold the key to next week’s rematch in Durban, a match I would strongly suspect the All Blacks might win. With another week to get over the travel factor, iron out kinks in the line-out and tidy up the play of the inside backs, I really think Henry’s men can come home with one out of two, which could be a handy outcome with the Boks yet to travel, which they often don’t do all that successfully, and so little separating the teams. Accuracy will be the key – mistakes and turnovers are usually punished with points, and whichever side gets the basics right – winning their own ball (and keeping hold of it), and makes the fewest glaring errors will likely walk away the winner.