Tag Archives: Graham Henry

Guest Post: Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

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. Continue reading

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Guest Post: The All Blacks – A Mid-Term Report

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…”

Mid-term report

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: Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Guest Post: Worth a Crack, Nigel

Springbok Champions

Worth a crack, Nigel…

For a town as infamously dull as Hamiltron, this was a thrilling game of football.

Needing to win and prevent the Boks from scoring a bonus point to keep the Tri Nations alive, and preferably gain a four try bonus point, the All Blacks threw everything at this one in the last 15 minutes and came up just a flattering three points short of stopping the Boks gaining a clean sweep over the AB’s to claim the title in 2009.

The line out was, once again, atrocious. After 30 minutes we had lost five of our own throws, with Victor Matfield using his glowering presence and masterful reading of play to turn Andrew Hore and his jumpers into gibbering wrecks. There was a distinct lack of urgency in this phase of the All Black game – we still take far too long to get into position and get the ball back into play, giving Big Vic ample opportunity to exert his influence. As the missus’ ‘colourful’ Uncle Pete summed it up – “I’d rather chew dogshit than watch this…”.

Breakdown penalties conceded in the first half were punished three times in a row from within the Boks own half by the monster boot of Francois Steyn, again confirming that possession is not necessarily of paramount importance in the game’s current incarnation. The Boks much touted scrum weakness was not in evidence, with under-fire skipper and makeshift tighthead prop John Smit more than holding his own against a decidedly weary looking Tony Woodcock.

Brad Thorn, too, looked a shadow of his former swashbuckling self, having shouldered a huge workload this year, and must now be deemed unlikely to still be around in 2011, at the ripe old age of 36. Fortunately, the investment made in youngsters like the impressive Isaac Ross, and the returning-from-injury Anthony Boric should reap rewards come World Cup year. Ditto young front rower Owen Franks, who still has a way to go, but should provide solid cover for Carl Hayman upon his (much needed) return from the UK.

The fact that Stephen Donald was yanked around the 50 minute mark suggested that the double pivot experiment had not been a success (with Henry admitting as much at the aftermatch press conference), Carter looking much more assured running the show on his own, with the more conventional line up of Nonu and Isaia Toeava outside him. And while the erratic Toeava was electric after coming on, making the decisive line break that set up Sitiveni’s try, Nonu had a terrible case of the dropsies – ball retention in contact is still a significant problem in his game (Uncle Pete: “He must have a photo of Henry f***ing a pig to still be in this side”). Carter’s restart kicking was perhaps a little patchy, but his tactical and defensive kicks were top notch, as was his goalkicking – in fact, none of the goalkickers (Carter, and those pesky Steyns) missed a shot all night.

A soft intercept try to Jean De Villiers (Carter, alas) gave the Boks a comfortable lead, before a baffling All Black decision not to take a gift three points when the Boks infringed in front of their posts; then an equally baffling one to goal the next penalty from a similar position – had the hope for that magical bonus point try win (presumably why they took the scrum on the first) evaporated in a couple of minutes?

Adam Thomson and Cory Jane’s (not before time) arrival off the bench seemed to really pick up the tempo against a Bok side visibly wilting in their third game in as many weeks, and when Carter picked out Richie McCaw with a pinpoint crossfield kick, there was a faint glimmer of hope that the AB’s might be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – suddenly they looked more alive, electric and dangerous than they have all season. Carter nailed the conversion in seconds flat, and the All Blacks regathered from the kickoff and continued the assault on the Springbok line, and with time up on the clock Carter attempted another audacious cross field kick to the left hand flank – this time nudging it too far and sending the ball into touch, probably a fitting and symbolic end to a frustrating season.

All is not lost, however (although it sort of will be if we can’t beat the Wallabies in Wellington next week, and end up finishing last…) As we surmised at the start of the Tri-Nations, this was always going to be the Boks year, and man for man they are currently, on the whole, stronger than the AB’s. It’s not even entirely fair to claim our tactics have been inept – mostly it has been a case of poor execution of often basic skills (catch, kick, pass, tackle) that have let us down, and while these things may be easy to do on the training field, they are a damn sight more difficult with (Justice For) Bakkies and the boys bearing down on you.

You could argue that flawed selections have played their role in the ’09 AB’s demise, and certainly the retention of the woefully out of form Joe Rokocoko is frankly baffling. But then the same could be said for so many of our players that if you were to start culling, you could end up with me and Uncle Pete on the field. The lineout is still an A-grade cock up, and forwards coach Steve Hansen must shoulder much of the blame here, given that Mike Cron takes care of the scrum – fortunately, the return of Ali Williams should shore this up. Fading old warriors who have served us well cannot be retained simply out of loyalty, although neither should their experience be cut adrift too hastily. Kieran Read has come on in leaps and bounds, but retaining Rodney So’oialo on the bench is like having some insurance, and also gives Rodders the chance to press his claims for a return to the starting line up.

Luke McAlister’s much touted return to the international arena has been disastrously managed – there are perfectly valid reasons why players have previously been required to play in either the Super 14 or Air New Zealand Cup to gain selection, and McAlister (clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer) has looked woefully out of his depth in a selection that reeked of desperation, and a desire to recoup on what has obviously been a costly investment.

Unfortunately, we have to concede a horrible, horrible thing – that the Springboks of 2009 are a better side than this year’s All Blacks line up, and that three defeats this year at their hands and two consecutive home losses present a pretty compelling argument for their credentials. Congratulations to the Springboks – worthy champions indeed.

– Jeremy Taylor

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Guest Post: The Cavalry Arrives (Too Late?)

Big time

It was a win born of necessity, rather than of the All Blacks’ tactical and physical supremacy, but in the context of this year’s Tri-Nations, it will just about do, and the obvious glee with which Graham Henry greeted the victory in Sydney after a bloody battle was plain for all to see.

Despite protestations from Wayne Smith (and the man himself) that Daniel Carter was not the cavalry coming over the hill to save the All Blacks from the worst start to a season in living memory, that in fact was almost exactly what he was – the 14 points he carved off with his boot, coupled with his deft and astute tactical kicking was by and large the difference between the two teams, particularly with his opposite Matt Giteau having a curiously quiet night. It also highlighted just what the AB’s have been lacking in terms of direction and control in their backline. Yep, sorry folks – he really is that good.

The contentious selection of Luke McAlister at second five amounted to very little in the end, particularly after he seemed dead set on showing just how badly knocked about you can get with poor tackling technique, and he was replaced by the man he usurped, Ma’a Nonu. Sitiveni Sivivatu again looked dangerous with ball in hand, while his wing partner and cousin Joe Rokocoko yet again offered precious little that Cory Jane, Hosea Gear or a number others would not have.

The rules again conspired to reduce the spectacle of the match to a one-try affair, and (usually excellent) referee Jonathan Kaplan gave a peculiarly home-team biased display that saw him overruling All Black tries to Jimmy Cowan (obstruction, a 50/50 call at best), and Dan Carter (a very questionable forward pass), as well as being every bit as whistle happy at the breakdown as his Northern Hemisphere contemporaries.

Most curious were some of Robbie Deans’ tactical decisions. Firstly, George Smith is unconvincing as a captain in Stirling Mortlock’s absence – it really seems to affect his ability to do his job at the breakdown, as though he is reluctant to draw the referee’s attention to himself – he also had a quiet match. Perhaps Nathan Sharpe, who has deputized for George Gregan in the past, may have been a better choice.

Secondly, playing Adam Ashley-Cooper at centre to accommodate teen sensation James O’Connor at fullback left the relatively inexperienced Wallaby three-quarters without much by way of direction – he would perhaps have been better left at fullback with league convert Ryan Cross in the midfield. And finally, pulling tighthead prop Al Baxter after just half an hour reeked of desperation – if you were going to pull him for doing exactly what he has done expertly for most of his career (folding in and collapsing when the Wallaby scrum is under pressure), why bother picking him in the first place? This in particular must have had the All Black forwards licking their chops, and the sight of Australian hooker Stephen Moore mopping up gallons of blood from the nose that was spread across his face was hugely symbolic.

The first forty minutes of this match did very little to allay the fears that the clumsy handling and inaccuracy that plagued the All Blacks South African visit were still a problem – they spent most of the game playing catch up rugby, and conceded far too many kickable penalties. That the win was secured, albeit right on the cusp of 80 minutes, and by a solitary point, is a testimony to the steely resolve of a hugely improved second half effort from the tight five, and of returning superstar Carter, particularly after his horribly flubbed drop goal attempt.

Rather than falling apart when he does things wrong (as Donald has, as Carlos Spencer did), Carter has the ability to pick himself up, dust himself down and play the cards he is dealt; in this instance a superbly judged kick into the corner that left the Wallabies scrambling in defense that drew the match winning penalty, which he slotted with clinical precision. His return to the side has had the same effect as McCaw’s did to the 2008 All Blacks, and with the Springboks on the road now, NZ supporters will be willing Deans’ Wallabies to lift themselves from these defeats and do the business against the Africans in either Perth or Brisbane. Or preferably both.

The All Blacks do have some problems of their own though – injuries to both starting midfielders Luke McAlister (broken cheekbone) and Conrad Smith (recurring hamstring injury) means we are in need of a fresh midfield combination for the all important match against the Springboks in Hamilton. It will be interesting to see whether the selectors persist with a kicking option at 12, which could see the much maligned Donald given a chance to prove himself in tandem with Carter, and Nonu moved to centre; or if the fragile confidence of Isaia Toeava is to be given another shot.

One thing is for certain, however – that Carter was more than ready to return to the international stage, and would be the first name you would write on the team sheet so long as he is fit.

– Jeremy Taylor

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Guest Post: Dance of the Desperates

abs

This week’s Bledisloe showdown in Sydney is shaping up as a huge matchup, in which a number of reputations may be salvaged or irreparably damaged – not least of which those of head coaches Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.

Both are coming off a pair of losses, and while their jobs are both (theoretically) safe through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, neither’s paymasters (or public) are likely to be overly thrilled with the way the Tri-Nations has been going for them thus far. Whilst both may protest that they are now starting to build towards 2011, both will be conscious that losses don’t put bums on seats at a time when rugby is struggling to hold people’s attention, and competing for a tightly stretched entertainment dollar.

For the All Blacks, the first step on the road to recovery is the thoroughly warranted return of star playmaker Daniel Carter. Quite aside from the obvious appeal of his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour and underwear modeling credentials, Carter is a superlative footballer who in the past has been able to step straight back into the highest level of international competition after recovering from some serious injuries.

He has looked in fine fettle in a couple of outings for Canterbury, and despite accusations of panic in the All Black camp in rushing him back, this was a decision that had to be made. Carter should be able to exercise a level of control over the backline that Stephen Donald has been unable to muster, although Luke McAlister’s selection outside him at second five is perhaps the most perplexing of Henry’s changes to the starting XV that was so comprehensively beaten in Durban.

Whilst it may be true that McAlister adds a hefty right boot to complement Carter’s left, I am with former All Blacks prop Richard Loe when he states that he has seen nothing from McAlister since his return from England that would have warranted All Black selection, and that kicking seems to be the only aspect of his game that has improved during his time at Sale. To be fair, his path back into the black jersey was to have been via some game time for the Juniors, but with the season ending injury to Richard Kahui, and Carter’s absence leaving the AB’s short of goalkicking inside backs, he was rushed back with what has been called ‘indecent haste’. The jury’s out.

By far the luckiest and unluckiest of those selected (and not) are wing Joe Rokocoko, and stalwart number 8 Rodney So’oialo. Both had good Air NZ Cup outings for their provinces in the weekend, Rokocoko scoring a brace in helping Auckland defeat Northland, and So’oialo coming off the bench to spark a Wellington second half revival that nearly got them over a spirited Bay Of Plenty after a perfectly awful first 40. Rokocoko’s form has been consistently terrible this year; So’oialo on the other hand has been merely adequate – Rokocoko gets picked, So’oialo gets benched in favour of young Cantab Kieran Reid. One also feels for Cory Jane, denied a chance to sharpen his chops with an outing for Wellington by a staunch Jamie Joseph’s refusal to kow-tow to the national selectors.

My ‘Southern Man’ friend will be thrilled with the excising of most of the Wellington contingent – Weepu (injured, but gone), Tialata (too fat, gone), Nonu (can’t kick – benched), So’oialo (umm… benched), Jane (umm…gone from the bench entirely) – in fact, only centre Conrad Smith has survived the cull. When the All Blacks lose they often resemble none so much as the Hurricanes losing yet another game against the Crusaders, and in ditching most of his Wellingtonians, Henry is perhaps seeking to eliminate this comparison – maybe this spells an end to the harem scarem histrionics that failed so dismally in Durban.

In its place, look for an improved set piece; a lot of territorial kicking and a significant improvement in accuracy at the breakdown. Helping this will be the presence of the world’s finest referee, South African Jonathan Kaplan, who shouldn’t have nearly as much problem finding the advantage line as his Northern Hemisphere colleagues, and with whom Richie McCaw has an excellent rapport. The fate of the Tri-Nations may now be out of our hands – to keep it we would need to win all our remaining matches, and for the Wallabies to beat the Boks in Perth, but like I said at the start of the tournament, I think that retaining the Bledisloe means more to most Kiwis anyhow.

– Jeremy Taylor

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Guest post: None Step Up – Two Steps Back

All Blacks lame dog

From bad to worse, the All Blacks contrived to concede two out of two to South Africa at home, with the chief culprits being a lack of discipline, poor execution of basic skills, and poor option taking under pressure from what is admittedly a very, very good Springbok side.

When rangy, athletic young Cantab lock Isaac Ross finished off a superb sequence of All Black attack early in the first half, there was a faint glimmer of hope that the poor starts that have dogged the 2009 AB’s were history. What followed, however, was 60 minutes of bungled kick receptions, shoddy passing, and inexplicable individual brain explosions.

With Bulls marksman Morne Steyn punishing any and all All Black transgressions within 60 metres of their goal line, and Welsh ref Nigel Owens whistling up a storm, this was the wrong match in which to serially infringe, even if Ross was dreadfully unlucky to be yellow carded for offside play at the end of the first half. McCaw’s usually impeccable timing and execution in pilfering possession at the breakdown showed ring rust, particularly when compared with his young Bok opponent, the increasingly impressive Heinrich Broussouw, and he too was caught out on several occasions.

If there is a concern that the forwards are being outmuscled, not to mention outsmarted, the lack of fluidity in the backline has reached epidemic proportions. The return of halfback Jimmy Cowan made no difference whatsoever, while Stephen Donald once again looked jittery and inept. Joe Rokocoko’s singular brain explosion in failing to touch down behind his own goal-line put his side under immense pressure, which was ultimately converted to points by Steyn’s tediously reliable boot.

Given that he now seems incapable of even making, let alone breaking the gain line, and has difficulty with even basic skills like catching and passing, the Rocket Man (think ‘Challenger’ – ten successful missions before crashing and burning and killing everyone on board…) must make way for the more reliable Cory Jane. It seems cruelly ironic (like rain on your wedding day, like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife etc) that Chiefs speedster Lelia Masaga was jettisoned in favour of giving Joe the chance to get back up to speed at test level, when surely the kindest thing to do for a former thoroughbred like Joe is to let him get his confidence back in the provincial competition.

Even a reliable workhorse like Brad Thorn is showing signs of the immense workload he has shouldered this year. He looks worn out. Tony Woodcock was lucky not to be penalized for continually dropping his bind at scrum time, while young tighthead Owen Franks was one of few bright spots in what was an overwhelmingly poor All Black performance, and looks to offer a lot more across the park than Neemia Tialata. It was also good to see Mils Muliaina looking hungrier than he has in the black jersey this year.

Our overall game plan does not appear to have taken into account changes in the ELV’s, and just as we looked all sea in last year’s Tri Nations loss to the Wallabies in Sydney (the last time the AB’s got absolutely hammered), this was a glaring example of a tactically flawed game plan made worse by feeble execution. Quite aside from the lineout problems resurfacing, we seem to lack the ability to use the rolling maul (executed to great effect by both the French and the Boks in their wins over the AB’s this year), or indeed to defend against it – the style of rugby the All Blacks are playing is in danger of looking as out of date as the kids in their skinny jeans and baggy cardies will in 12 months time. When the AB’s lose they invariably resemble the Hurricanes playing harem scarem rugby against a more structured side like the Crusaders. If we maybe didn’t deserve to lose in Bloemfontein any more than we deserved to win in Auckland the previous week, the match in Durban was depressing for the fact that there could be no excuses whatsoever for the loss.

So, where to now for Henry’s band of now not-so-merry men? Firstly – some personnel changes clearly need to be made. Despite some poor decision making at crunch time, Piri Weepu must be at least tried as the starting half back, and if it is that the selectors have concerns about his fitness, maybe Brendon Leonard is to add his zip and spark at the 50 minute mark. Brad Thorn clearly needs a break, so should be monitored closely in the three weeks until the AB’s meet the Wallabies in Sydney – aside from Jerome Kaino he is the only real tough nut in the pack, and as such is absolutely crucial to our slim remaining hopes in this competition. Rodney So’oialo might be better served coming off the bench (for now) with the more dynamic Kieran Read taking his place at the back of the scrum.

Which brings us to the 700,000 Euro question – is it to soon to rush Daniel Carter back into the black jersey? I say no – HELL, no! He looked comfortable enough in Canterbury’s surprise loss to North Harbour at Albany, and his class, poise and tactical kicking could be just the ticket to reignite a backline that has been stuttering and struggling for continuity, so let’s bring him back, post-haste. If you consider that the current All Black side is really only missing two of its lynchpins – Carter and experienced second rower Ali Williams – and is playing this poorly, you start to see just how crucial Carter is. Given another three weeks, a player of Carter’s undoubted quality should be more than capable of transitioning back into test match football, especially against a Wallabies side who I reckon will be at least competitive against the Boks in Cape Town this week.

Aside from some rejigging of the squad (and at the risk of sounding like one of Murray Deaker’s talkback radio morons), the team needs to work on basics – in particular, passing and catching, and protecting possession at the breakdown. Granted, this is easier said than done when you have 15 green clad, firebreathing Bokke Orcs trying to stop you from adequately performing these core tasks, but their execution has been so poor there simply must be room for improvement. Defensively the AB’s have been fairly sound, but whilst that means you can play like chumps and still beat Italy (just), it won’t cut it against teams that can punish errors like the Boks or the Wallabies , or, indeed, later in the year against the French again, or against Warren Gatland’s fine Welsh side, or… you get my drift.

It’s time to shape up or shut down altogether. Forget the talk of ‘at least we’re not peaking between World Cups’ – at this rate we’re in serious danger of not even being in the hunt come 2011.

– Jeremy Taylor

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