Tag Archives: Tri-Nations

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: 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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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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Enduring The Black Parade

As our more regular readers might be uninterested to know, I’m currently in Edinburgh, and in approximately seven hours will be walking in to Parkhead in Glasgow to watch the Old Firm game. It’s going to be the most amazing live sporting occasion of my life, I reckon, and if I don’t get stabbed you can read about it here on Monday or Tuesday. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

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I flew into the UK thanks to the good people at Air New Zealand, and alongside some inspired TV choices (Peep Show Season 5, damn!) they had a sports channel, the third program of which was the first Tri-Nations game ever, and there can never have been a more perfect example of rugby’s past and future colliding and fusing in one simply enthralling game of rugby union.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxmoImpQrG8%5D

That’s the  local feed, with Keith Quinn and Grant Fox calling it (free-to-air rugby? How we’ve grown…), but Air NZ’s version was the Australian commentary, pretty well-handled it must be said, though given that they were dealing with what looks to my eyes like the best All Black team to walk out in my lifetime – and the most immaculate performance the team ever put together – then I guess that’s understandable. But seriously, find fault with this XV: Continue reading

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