Tag Archives: Ma’a Nonu

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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Tri Nations Guest Post: I Don't Want to Spoil The Party…

Poor old John Smit. After 77 minutes of brutal, bludgeoning Tri-Nations rugby, in his hundredth test match, his under-the-cosh side were sitting five points clear of their 2010 tormentors, the All Blacks, with the score at 22-17. Finally something was going to go right for him; his loose forwards had performed like recently-deployed exocet missiles, Morne Steyn was a dead-eye Dick with his goalkicking, and new halfback Francois Hougaard had kicked intelligently and made lots of darting runs up round the fringes, a la Fourie du Preez. They had driven the AB’s back in the tackle more often than not, their scrum and line-out had stood up, and it looked for all the world like he was going to receive the ultimate party gift in front of a massive Soweto crowd of 90-odd thousand. His 2010 hoodoo was about to be broken.

And then, after 81 minutes, he was kneeling, his face in his hands, with his team on the wrong side of a 29-22 scoreline. He had the same hollow, dead eyed look that Dan Carter and Anton Oliver sported from the stands in ‘that’ 2007 RWC quarter-final. Good God fearing man that he is, he really must have wondered what the hell happened. Continue reading

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Guest Post: The All Blacks Have Decided To Be Amazing Again

Tell your story walking bokker

Saturday evening saw one of the great All Black performances of recent years, with the team claiming an impressive, important 32-12, bonus point victory over the much fancied Springboks at Eden Park. As far as victories go, this one is right up there with Paris in ’04 and the second Lions test in ’05 in terms of emphatic, defining wins.

From the outset, there was an intensity to the team’s commitment to getting basics right, and to righting the three losses they suffered at the hands the World Cup holders last year. Nowhere was this more evident than in the performances of three of the more contentious selections – fullback Mils Muliaina, second five Ma’a Nonu, and lock Tom Donnelly. All three gave superb accounts of themselves, despite having had precious little game time of late –Donnelly being excellent around the park, as well as reliable in executing his core tasks, and, perhaps most importantly, disrupting the Boks’ lineout ball; Muliaina really stuck it to the critics who suggested that at 30 years of age, he was past it and ripe for replacement by the up and coming Israel Dagg with a staggering performance in defence and linebreaking counter-attack, whilst Nonu was right back to his belligerent best in midfield, in combination with the magnificent Conrad Smith. 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: Stayin' Alive

dead springbok

Thanks to an astonishing form turnaround from the Wallabies, and the familiar traveling woes of the Boks, the All Blacks find themselves in a position where, despite their own struggles this year, they are still in contention to win the 2009 Tri-Nations.

Birthday boy Robbie Deans wielded the selectorial axe ruthlessly (as perhaps Henry should have done), culling halfback Luke Burgess in favour of promising rookie Will Genia, moving makeshift captain George Smith to number 8 to replace the underperforming Richard Brown, and restoring Mark Chisholm, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes to starting roles. Almost without exception, these changes reaped rewards as these players rose to the challenge of defending a proud 38 year undefeated record in Brisbane against the Boks. Genia in particular was superb – snappy passing, hustling feistily around the rucks, and meticulous tactical kicking that suggest Dingo has finally unearthed a worthy successor to George Gregan. Blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, too was nothing short of inspirational.

The Boks, however, looked every bit as shonky and one dimensional as they had looked polished and multi-faceted when they won handsomely (and with a bonus point) in Perth the previous week. Where in Perth previously underperforming marquee players like Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana looked like they had finally broken the shackles of the very limited kick-and-chase game they had employed to great effect at home, here they once again looked one dimensional and utterly unable to put points on the board. The penalties that they have been able to draw with their speed and aggression attacking the ball at the breakdown were simply not forthcoming from English referee Wayne Barnes, who gave a very composed and accurate account of himself (quite unlike the barely contained shambles of Cardiff in ’07 in THAT quarterfinal).

It is this inability to really put a team that is down to the sword that belies claims that this is a truly great Boks side. Just as they failed to put away the Lions in the third test this year, they failed to take a golden opportunity to complete a double header on the Wallabies in Australia; after playing magnificent, flowing, expansive, winning rugby in Perth, they reverted to type in Brisbane and looked dull, flat and uninspired.

With the All Blacks currently sitting on 8 points in the competition, and the Boks on 17, the AB’s will need to come away with two victories and at least one bonus point win in the next two weeks to perform the greatest resurrection since, um, last year and win the Tri-Nations. They will also need to deny the Boks a bonus point for losing by less than 7 – a pretty tall ask, but not unachievable, given that the Boks appear to be conforming to type and underperforming on tour.

Which really begs the question as to which Boks team will show up in Hamilton this weekend – the sleek, streamlined machine that ruthlessly dispatched the Wallabies in Perth, or the feckless, dreary unit who only avoided a 25 point thrashing in Brisbane by virtue of two last gasp, try saving tackles. And then, how best to choose a team and prepare for a team who seems to blow almost as hot and cold as the French.

Surely Stephen Donald deserves the chance to be paired with Dan Carter in the ten/ twelve roles that was afforded to Luke McAlister in Sydney – this gives the left/ right foot kicking option that the Wallabies enjoy with Giteau and Barnes in their backline, and presents the opportunity to test the Boks three quarters with some of the up and unders that the Africans have employed so effectively. Carter and Donald are also fine defenders, which will be crucial to keep the sizable Boks midfield of de Villiers and Fourie in check.

The issue then becomes who takes over Conrad Smith’s vacant 13 jersey, the obvious solution being to move Ma’a Nonu (with his improved distribution and defensive game) out one place. Bringing Mils Muliaina up from fullback has also been mooted, with Cory Jane providing fine cover, but I would suspect Jane is better deployed in place of Joe Rokocoko on the right wing.

The forward rather pick themselves, particularly with Mealamu injured and Tialata out of form and out of favour. The tight five will need to get through a power of work to repel a Springbok pack who will feel they have something to prove after looking decidedly below par in Brisbane – captain John Smit in particular had a torrid time in the scrums against Wallabies loosehead Benn Robinson, and their champion second rowers Victor Matfield and ‘Justice For Bakkies’ Botha were at least matched by the young Wallabies pairing of James Horwill and Mark Chisholm.

The loose forwards will need to play an effective linking game, functioning dually as extra bodies in the tight, and like auxiliary backs in the loose – it looks like Kieran Read will be fit to be selected at number eight over veteran Rodney So’oialo, so the only issue will be whether Adam Thompson’s stellar Air NZ Cup form makes him a contender on the blindside over Jerome Kaino (for my money Thompson is still a bit loose in the role).

Can they do it? Sure they can. Will they? Well, if we knew that there would be no point in playing.
The All Blacks have maintained such a standard of excellence since 2003, that the few games they have lost have been burned into the memory (Rustenberg, Sydney, Cardiff…) Lots of surprises in the Tri-Nations already this year, and it has already held more interest and intrigue than in recent years – is there room for one more dramatic twist in the tale?

–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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