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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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The Force Is Gathering

Photo0090

Grant Nisbett intoned that headline ominously as another wave of Springbok attackers crashed the beleaguered All Black defenses, with the only certainty being a penalty conceded and the eager boot of Morne Steyn. The scoreline might have been similar, but this defeat was a far more humbling one, and this particular All Black side looked like bumbling amateurs when set against the confident, brusing rugby touted by the Springboks.

Thing is, though, they aren’t amateurs. And most All Black sides of the amateur era would have run this side over as nonchalantly as John Smit’s team did this morning. Most All Black sides of the amateur era could catch the high ball, could win their own line out, could figure out that constant infringement against a side with a 80% plus goal kicker was not a strategy worth pursuing.

Not our guys. The number of times the ball bounced off Sivivatu, Rokocoko and Donald’s sholuders as they leapt clumsily for a bomb was inexcusable. Similarly, on the rare occasions we had somehow gained possession, the number of passes which went to ground, behind players, through players – even, on one awful occasion, straight past players and across the dead ball line – the whole panicked, desperate nature of the transfer of the ball from one All Black to the next looked irretrievably broken.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a game where we shucked off the hemmed in, structured game which has became the norm in international rugby. Where we made use of our creative backs, and our speed across the park. Where we let the All Blacks be the All Blacks, and screw those who’d tell us otherwise. Through the build up and early stages Nisbett and company (who would have a good line in to this team) talked of the word being that this was what was coming, and when Isaac Ross scored a neat sideline try which appeared out of nowhere, you allowed yourself to dream, for just a moment, that we were going to see something special.

Then Steyn hit a penalty, then another, and suddenly the lead we’d dazzlingly stretched on the back of Ross’ try was a meagre point, and the scale of what faced us was clear. These Springboks could score more tries than they do pretty comfortably, easily three or four a match. But they’ve no need to. Such is our grasp of the myriad ways to offend at the breakdown and tackle, of how to turn a ball over and lose line-out ball – so well-versed are we at these base arts that they know possession in the opposition half brings points, and sooner rather than later.

So the new, improved, devil-may-care All Blacks this morning resembled nothing so much as the Warriors c. 2000, madly throwing the ball around no matter where they were on the field, hoping against hope that the boundless creativity latent in the limbs of our backline would somehow explode into a masterful length of the field try. That try never came, and too often we saw insanity like Sivivatu’s (error in the original – gave ‘credit’ to the wrong inept wing) Rokocoko’s failure to ground the ball behind his own tryline, which came within a hair’s breadth of disaster, or those two insipid intercept passes that Donald threw around the half-time break.

We played attacking rugby from everywhere, even though our error rate (27 turnovers, 14 penalties conceded) virtually guaranteed a change of possession. When we did decide to kick the ball, we would send it to the Springbok backs in space, where their monumental punting would have us throwing into a line-out near our own line – an area we scraped 50% of the ball from, though it felt like less.

That the score was only 31-19 you can put down to one freakish try, which came against the run of play and seemed to only galvanise the Springboks resolve. No All Black covered themselves in glory tonight, and as much as Donald had the worst game of his inauspicious career, it was a team defeated by a ruthless, extremely efficient opposition.

Perhaps the only thing you can be positive about from this annhilation was that it occurred in 2009, rather than 2011. We’ve made a habit for as long as I can remember of sweeping all before us between World Cups, so maybe it’s good for us to be down and (nearly) out here rather than getting brash and complacent. But something huge needs to change (starting with Carter’s return, and then some) for this side to have any pretensions that it can stand alongside the world’s best.

– Duncan

PS – Here’s a couple of photos I took during the pre-match. Note that the Springbok backline is so undersized that Habana had to carry one of his teammates onto the park – further grist for the All Blacks shame mill.

Brian Habana and Francois Steyn take the field in Durban

This might have been my favourite moment of the match. I’m pretty sure Percy Montgomery, the most capped ‘Bok of all time, is wearing a home-made McDonalds arm band. I have no jokes for this. I thought I really liked the golden arches, but neither I nor John Daly have ever gotten this deep.

Percy Montgomery loves McDonalds

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The Same Old Story

Sad All Blacks

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.

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Tr-Nations 2009: Only McCaw Can Save Us Now

Richie McCaw 3

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

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