The Iveco series came and went with much gnashing of teeth from the Great New Zealand Rugby Public. Stephen Donald was hung, drawn and quartered for the grievous sin of not being Dan Carter (one wonders how his Mum might have felt upon seeing her son on the cover of this month’s NZ Rugby World mag atop the headline “The Weakest Link – should we say goodbye to Stephen Donald?”); likewise, Luke McAlister for failing to hit the ground running after three months out injured, having not played test football for a couple of years. They are the All Blacks, after all, and defeat is not an option.
The scrum, once a symbol of our obvious masculine superiority to those puny Australians and soft Northern Hemisphere teams, is now a source of some consternation. Liam Messam has been talked up, and just as comprehensively talked back down again by recently re-signed coach Graham Henry; never mind the fact that his criticisms could just as easily been directed at underachieving wunderkind Isaia Toeava, or faded superstar wing Joe Rokocoko. The ‘back in the day’ crowd – David Kirk, Robin Brooke, Taine Randell et al have been wheeled out to offer variations on the ‘they need to harden the f*** up’ theme. So where does all this leave us, ahead of a Tri-Nations that offers no certainties for any of the three competing southern hemisphere sides?
Well, for starters, let’s take the Boks. Whilst they were good enough to defeat the touring British and Irish Lions 2 to 1, there is no ignoring the fact that the Boks actually played progressively worse with each 40 minutes of the three tests. A friend suggested that this may be due to the players starting out with formations and patterns they had used over the Super 14 (especially those of the champion Bulls), and then rapidly losing this structure under the influence of their half-witted coach, Peter de Villiers. His comments in the wake of the Schalk Burger gouging incident were nothing short of appalling, while the players demonstrated clearly that they are equally capable of misplaced team loyalty with their ‘Justice 4 Bakkies’ armbands – when you have gotten away with as much as Bakkies has over the years, I reckon you need to take the crunchy with the smooth…
The Boks clearly lack depth just as badly as the All Blacks do – clearing the bench in the first test nearly cost them the game, and PdV’s arrogance in naming of a second-string side in the third test probably cost them the clean sweep that the AB’s achieved over the Lions in ’05. Now that Burger is out for most of the Tri-Nations, young Cheetah (yes, that was a pun) Heinrich Broussow will most likely start on the openside, giving the Boks strength in an area they have not traditionally concentrated on, but weakening one of their strongest plays, the lineouts. Habana still looks short of a gallop, while inspirational skipper John Smit is clearly marking time on the tighthead, making way for superior rake Bismarck du Plessis. Plus their head coach, who could euphemistically be described as a ‘political’ appointment, is clearly an imbecile. This is not a team without its problems.
The Wallabies, on the other hand, look to be a fairly settled unit. They too have had a little controversy in the form of the Lote Tuquiri debacle – if rumour is to be believed, he was threatening a return to League in an effort to drive up the value of his contract with the ARU. Unfortunately for him, Robbie Deans is an excellent coach and selector whose succession planning has given the Wallabies a plethora of wing options – Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner, Adam Ashley-Cooper and teen sensation James O’Connor – and is able to ditch a player whose ego had outgrown his value to the team. He has the luxury of having the world’s best first five (at least while Dan Carter is out of commission) in Matt Giteau, and another quality pivot in second five Berrick Barnes (who, together with fellow Reds midfielder Quade Cooper, has the silliest name in world rugby). He also has a steadily improving tight five – especially hooker Stephen Moore and hard-edged second rower James Horwill.
Lookng at it purely objectively, the Wallabies would seem to have the most going for them on a number of levels. However, the suspicion that they may have flattered to deceive with two wins over Italy that were no more convincing than the AB’s scratchy victory, and a win over a French side who were still congratulating themselves on their win over the AB’s in Dunedin hint that they may not yet have the wherewithal and self-belief it takes to win what is still a grueling competition that generally requires wins away from home to secure the title, wins they may not be equipped to effect. Not yet, anyway.
And then there’s the All Blacks. The return of the peerless Richie McCaw as both captain and number 7, and his trusty cohort Rodney So’oialo on the back of the scrum will add starch, workrate, and much needed experience to a green-ish forward pack; Sitiveni Sivivatu’s dazzling broken field running, and returning-from-injury first choice centre Conrad Smith’s excellent defence and positional nous should settle down what has been a terribly skittish 2009 effort from the All Black backs.
Other problem areas include the aforementioned scrum, where the inclusion of young Crusaders tighthead Owen Franks hardly bespeaks the selectors’ faith in either Neemia Tialata or John Afoa, and similarly at ruck and maul time, where only veteran Brad Thorn’s superhuman effort in Wellington kept the AB’s in the hunt – the lack of assistance he received was truly terrifying. Curiously, the lineout – our Achilles heel for a decde or more – seems to have improved in inverse proportion to other aspects of our forward play.
And then there’s the massive, gaping chasm that lies between the absent Dan Carter and his would-be replacements, Stephen Donald and Luke McAlister. Given that both of them are presently injured, leaving the possibility that Piri Weepu (our best halfback) or even featherweight rookie Stephen Brett may be tried at 10 in the opening match in Auckland against Australia, this is far and away the All Blacks’ biggest hurdle in 2009. If this hurdle is overcome, however, it could be very timely for RWC 2011 in terms of developing depth in this most crucial position.
So, it’s really anybody’s contest. My money would still be on the Boks – they have the most experienced side and are just too strong in many key areas. If the Boks don’t win this year, de Villiers is history (which may actually be some incentive for the team to lose…) On the other hand entirely, Robbie Deans is very astute, and Australian rugby sides are often just too smart – and this is perhaps shaping up to be the strongest, canniest Wallabies side since ’99. As for the All Blacks, they know only too well how unacceptable defeat is.
If the 2009 Tri-Nations were New Zealand’s Next Top Model 2009, the Boks would be talented, charming Christobelle, the Wallabies the crafty, hard-grafting Hosanna, and the All Blacks the slightly plain-Jane Laura. Just like NZNTM, this is shaping up to be a very interesting competition.
– Jeremy Taylor