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