2 Dec

They Think It's All Over – It Is Now!
by Colin Johnston
2 Dec 2003

The above eight words are repeated ad nauseum by the TV as the long suffering British viewing public is treated to the spectacle of England winning the World Cup with the last kick of the game, in extra time, against an old foe. Only it is not the Webb Ellis Trophy but the soccer version that this refers to. This is even though this Earth shattering event happened 37 years ago. And now what’s happened? The Aussies and All Blacks have conspired to hand England the RWC. The rest of the UK will now have to smile and nod, for two such video replays that were almost identical in their final execution.

In absolute fairness, England deserved the win in Sydney. They have without doubt, been the best test match playing rugby team in the World for the past two years. Indeed, this is probably the first team ever to win the World Cup that deserves the title of ‘World Champions’ even though winning the World Cup doesn’t bestow this title on the winners. Okay, it has taken me over a week to actually put fingers to keyboard and admit it, but there you go. I’ve done it and I am now out of denial and on the road to recovery.

So, what lessons can we learn from this?

The first one is simple. Large helpings of humble pie are to be eaten by all those that said the English forwards are too old and that they would wilt in the heat (I think I maybe said something along those lines, as I have been receiving quotes to that effect for the past week). Anyway, the forwards didn’t wilt and they didn’t take a step back, get sent off or anything else that I perhaps ill advisedly suggested they would. They were absolutely magnificent for long periods of the final and they choked the life out of the opposition for even longer stretches of the match. It is a credit to the Aussies that they never got completely swamped under the white tide. By the way, I have found through personal use that large quantities of humble pie are best washed down with some of the Aussie’s latest whine made from Australia’s best and purest sour grapes.

Second thing is yes, even when the Aussie’s have brought their own ref to hand out penalties in the very last minute thereby giving the Aussies what is normally a thoroughly undeserved win, they can still lose a test match. How many times have the Aussies kicked the winner with the siren about to go and stolen the game? This time England refused to buckle and they took the game back up field and kept it there until Wilco killed the Aussie’s off.

Thirdly and this one is aimed at Merry Mitch and his crew of eternal optimists, always, always pick a blend of battle hardened test match winners and youth. Pick a goal kicker, have more than one game plan, do not do the inevitable and even if you personally don’t like the alternative, leave the developing kids at home and bring along the match breakers that are sitting in the lounge watching the game with their mates. Forward domination wins matches. Goal kickers win world cups. Chant this mantra for 5 minutes every night before you go to bed.

Fourth, oh yes there’s more where this came from, fourth is that Super 12 and Test Match rugby have the same number of players on the park and use the same shaped ball. That is all they have in common. What we have seen over the past 2 months is that Test rugby requires a mental fortitude and playing style that Super 12 doesn’t recognise. The other thing the RWC has brought to light is how bad some of the refs are that have cut their teeth in Super 12. Steve Walsh, for a variety of reasons including his outburst at the England officials and his abysmal performance in the Oz v Scotland match should never and I mean never, be given an international assignment as a ref again. At best he could be the video ref, but only if supervised and I certainly wouldn’t let him near the remote control. He typifies Super 12. Looks flashy, shorts and shirt are suitably fashionable and he is wired for sound. Zero substance or delivery but he is wired for sound. Super 12 is one thing and one thing only – entertainment for the masses. It is the media companies way of trying to recoup the investment they make along with the sponsors, such as Nike, and frankly they don’t care what happens to the game along the way so long as they get the ratings. They don’t care about the game, honest. If you think they do, I’ve got a second hand car you may wish to buy!

Fifth and finally, if New Zealand wants to win the Webb Ellis trophy and have their opportunity to be called ‘World Champions’ then they must rebuild from the bottom up. Start by strengthening and not threatening the NPC, make it the pre-eminent tournament that a Kiwi can play in without actually pulling on the Black shirt. Allow proper tours to and from the Northern Hemisphere. Offer the Lions a minimum of a ten match Tour in 2005 with at least three tests plus a host of games against the NPC sides (definitely not the Super 12 ones!) and then watch your own game grow.

It’s your call, fast and loose or fronted up and in the final.

20 Nov

Cruel and Unusual Punishment
by Paul Waite
20 Nov 2003

This is a message to Syd Millar of the IRB: please drop the 3rd/4th playoff game from the Rugby World Cup format for 2007.

As the title suggests, it is indeed cruel and unusual punishment, not only for the players who are physically and mentally scarred by having their hopes trashed in a semi-final loss, but also for the fans.

To add insult to injury, the battered losers have to front up after only 3-4 days rest from what was probably the most bruising and draining game of their season, possibly their lives.

The final cruncher is that nobody cares what the result of it is!

I appreciate that former World Cups depended somewhat on a knowledge of the finishing order 1-2-3-4, of the teams involved, due to a misplaced idea that it would be used for seeding some four years hence. Athough what relevance it has after that amount if time is anyone’s guess.

These days we have official rankings on a test-by-test basis, and so determining who is third or fourth is completely irrelevant. When the World Cup draw is made therefore, all that needs to be done next time is to consult the latest rankings to determine seeding.

To my knowledge, every single person asked for an opinion on this subject, fan and player alike has said that they think the 3rd/4th playoff game should be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.

Syd Millar, IRB Chairman – for the sake of all involved, please make it so!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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20 Nov

Go The Poms
by Paul Waite
20 Nov 2003

Ask yourself this question: what would it mean if Australia won the Rugby World Cup this Saturday night?

The Wallabies have played awful rugby for the whole season, losing twice to New Zealand, once to South Africa and once to England on their own soil, then stumbling through the World Cup itself up until the semi-final where they played one out of the box.

They’d obviously drilled themselves silly for that semi-final since the Bledisloe Cup loss in Auckland, and succeeded in killing the New Zealanders’ expansive running game stone dead.

That’s a bit of an interesting thing in itself isn’t it? Smothering the All Blacks’ attacking game with superb defence. Hmmm. Hold on a minute, the Aussie Press have been haranguing England this week in typical Okker cheerleader fashion, telling us that England are “boring” and “cheats” and are “killing rugby”, and “O woe is us” if the Poms happen to win because it will be sooo bad for the game.

All this in support of a team which got through to the final by cleverly nullifying the opposition’s attack. It’s no accident that the only try they scored against the Blacks was a rather fortuitous intercept, and nothing to do with Wallaby “creativity” whatsoever. They won the game on cleverly targetted defence, applied with a great passion. Nothing wrong with that, but we could be spared the holier than thou shite being crapped out of the Australian media’s collective back-side thanks.

And what if the Aussies win this weekend? Will they be deserving of the tag “Best In The World”?

England on the other hand are clearly out in front. Should they win this weekend, as I’m fervently hoping, then all will be right with the World of rugby. Their record this season is second to none, putting them deservedly at Numero Uno in the world rankings. They have beaten both Australia and New Zealand on their own turf, would have every right to claim the “Best In The World” crown, should they win.

That’s the nature of the Rugby World Cup. It’s nothing more than a very thin, slightly over-sweet icing on a very large cake.

Hopefully the result on Saturday will bear out what we all know in our minds, if not our hearts: England are currently the best rugby team in the World.

I have another reason to hope that England win the Cup in fact. Being an All Black supporter I have, for the past eight years, watched as the traditional forward power of rugby in this country has been hung out to dry. John Mitchell promised us much, but has not delivered as yet in terms of rectifying that.

I hope for an England victory so that it might, finally, point the way to adjustments which need to be made in our approach to the game.

Go Whilte!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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18 Nov

Post-mortem: All Blacks v Australia RWC Semi Final
by Tracey Nelson
18 Nov 2003

So what went so horribly wrong on Saturday night, when a team stacked full of so many talented players apparently choked in the face of an extremely passionate and ferocious Australian team?

It was a combination of several things. Not withstanding the onslaught from the Wallabies, it was more a mixture of being very static on attack and not establishing any rhythm when it came to executing and timing our passes (and lineout!) than actually choking.

Contrary to what it may have appeared to be on first and even second viewing of the game, the All Blacks did have a reasonable amount of possession, but it was what we did with it that was the problem.

In the forwards, our ball carriers were standing too flat when receiving the ball and were essentially static against a very fast advancing Australian defensive line. During the first half we were also guilty of not committing enough players to the breakdown, which allowed Australia to clear their ball quickly, while in comparison they did a very good job at slowing down our ball.

Our backline was also standing up too flat and trying to spread the ball wide from first phase ball, which allowed Australia to drift on defence and shut us down. For the life of me I cannot understand why we never tried putting a chip kick just over them and put chasers through after it, as there was an acre of space behind that could have been opened up. Continual lateral running while trying to shift the ball without using players coming back effectively on the cut just made life too easy for the Australian defensive line.

Defensively we were probably guilty of being too passive, instead of playing offensive defence. We also had problems with players coming up too fast out of the line, slipping off tackles and creating holes.

One thing that mystifies me though is the criticism of MacDonald at centre, where he has been accused of being weak on defence and allowing Australia to run through gaps. I found no evidence of this when I went through the tape. The Wallabies were actually running at Spencer and taking the gap that he left when he turned out instead of staying in on defence, a problem he has had from time to time this year and one that was exploited by Wales in pool play. At no time did I see MacDonald creating gaps for the opposition attack, and he made all his crucial tackles.

Penalties cost us dearly – we gave away 13 which is around 5 more than we have averaged in each game of the World Cup up until the semifinal. There were too many mistakes made within kicking distance for Australia on Saturday night, and while Flately kicked their goals we were once again left to rue the fact that we did not have a world class goal kicker in our fifteen.

Another criticism has been an apparent lack of a Plan B when our backs were against the wall – there was definitely a change in our commitment at the breakdown in the second half, with more players committing and better offensive defence. But handling errors and turnovers started to plague us along with the penalties we were conceding, while our backline continued to be impotent on attack.

We also struggled with lack of leadership and experience – once Marshall left the field injured it appeared that Thorne had no other deputies on the field. It is important to have leadership in the backline to give commentary to the forwards, particularly in a game like this one. Our lack of experience and the relative youth of the team on the field was a definite problem and one that was always going to be there for us when we lost Umaga to injury early in the tournament.

John Mitchell said at the press conference after the game:
‘We have a particular framework that we totally believe in that has worked well for us in 2003, and we just could not establish it tonight’.

I believe that statement is actually correct to a large degree, and that Australia denied us the chance to do so for large parts of the match by targeting some correctly perceived weaknesses in our game. But there were also moments where we had the chance to establish that gameplan and it was simple things like poor throws to the lineout, missed kicks at goal, pushing a pass that didn’t need to be made, turning over possession, losing composure when on defence to concede a penalty, and not having a fall-back plan that ultimately cost us.

17 Nov

Whatever happened
by Rob Wallace
17 Nov 2003

I’m sorry but you won’t convince me this is a great Australian team, however they certainly strangled the All Blacks at the weekend. While Australia never looked like creating anything, this was finals footy, and all about accuracy, pressure and defence, and wow, did the Aussies deliver.

The Australians were better prepared and better coached, and used a sounder gameplan than Mitchell’s All Blacks. Someone needs to tell the All Blacks to walk before they run, and they needed to try to dominate possession and set pieces before going wide. In the past, World Cup playoff games have frequently been tight, and kicks matter. History will show the All Blacks were overconfident about their running game, and lacked a quality kicker. They made too many mistakes, and were never able to pressure Australia. Without a forward platform they could not develop any continuity, and they never had enough possession to counter attack.

Equally worrying was the lack of leadership on the field, and the inability to change tactics. This game was lost due to poor thinking and planning by the coaching staff, and poor execution on the field by the players. During their preparation they had not been exposed to pressure like this before, and when faced with it they folded.

The player selection Mitchell has used is also interesting. Most coaches would keep players like Oliver, Mehrtens, Randell, Maxwell and Cullen in the wider squad, if only for the leadership and experience factors they could offer. Not Mitchell. He seems to have placed more value on having a good team ethic, and players who could follow his lead. He has stuck with same group of players throughout the season, based entirely on S12 form. The only player dropped, Oliver, seemed to be on the basis of personality, rather than performance. Mitchell kept 2 players in the squad, Sooialo and Nonu, despite seeming to lack confidence in their ability to perform at the highest level, presumably to retain team spirit. I can’t help but think it would have been nice to have Mehrtens sitting on the bench to provide an alternative and keep teams guessing how we would play.

I don’t like blaming the coach for losses, but this loss looks like a system failure rather than individual player’s fault – the whole team was so awful. I have problems with the players selected (or not selected), the preparation for this campaign, the chosen game plan, and the execution of it. There was no leadership, no reorganisation under pressure and no visible change at halftime. Apart from the execution, all of the remaining problems are attributable to Mitchell and his management team. Add in the fact they have alienated almost everyone and I find it hard to see how Mitchell can continue as coach without some significant changes.

Mitchell stated it was his team, and he’d do it his way. If you take that attitude you get both the plaudits and also the blame if you fail.

16 Nov

Time for a new destination for "the journey"
by Rick Boyd
16 Nov 2003

Congratulations to the Wallabies on their World Cup semi-final win over the All Blacks, 22-10.

It is a geat pity that everyone is so obsessed by this knock-out tournament that this loss will overshadow many of the good things the All Blacks have achieved this year. The Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations are not minor achievements, and it should not be overlooked that New Zealand remains 2-1 up over Australia in 2003. If it was an old-fashioned series, the All Blacks would have left the ground disappointed but with the consolation that it was a meaningless loss in a dead rubber.

As it is, I can only hope there will be some good come out of this in that people, particularly in New Zealand, start to realise the flaws of this admirable but limited tournament, which basically sets up a top eight lottery. One team emerges to win disproportionate glory, while others who may be more deserving over the longer distance, will feel failure at not stringing together three wins that combine the right game with the right opponent at the right time. It is to be hoped that John Mitchell will not be thrown on the scrap heap, as he has achieved much and could do more. Still, he asked to be judged on his world cup, and that must be seen as a failure. Perhaps future coaches will set goals of greater depth.

No country in the world should go into the world cup “expecting’ to win it. The competition is a lottery and winning it is no guarantee of any greatness outside the cup itself. New Zealanders must stop thinking they have a right to win the world cup. They should focus on more consistent goals.

The All Blacks have only one black mark against them in 2003 in terms of real performance, and that is the loss to England, distorted though that was by John Mitchell’s “journey”. I expect to see England in that most pointless and futile of exercises, the play-off for third. There is one small triumph still left to achieve.

As to the game itself, my “could” prediction came true rather than my “should”, and this perenially inconsistent All Black team chose this match to display their very worst of forward invisibility and backs errors. They were lethargic, wooden, slow and lacklustre, as well as atrociously error-prone and confoundingly directionless.

They lost the game from the moment Mortlock scored his intercept try. Their confidence, always a fragile thing, disappeared and they played the most aimless variety of catch-up rugby for the remainder of the match.

But it wasn’t just New Zealand v New Zealand. The Wallabies were 15 different players from the awkward team that lost the Bledisloe Cup. They were hungry, committed, and put unbelievable pressure on the All Blacks right from the start. Their error count was kept to manageable proportions, their defence was solid and they had a goal kicker who could actually kick goals. Apparently an optional extra for Mitchell’s All Blacks. The Wallaby forwards weren’t outstanding, and their scrum was shaky, but they didn’t need to be anything special as the All Blacks fumbled and bumbled their way though the game with increasing desperation. The Wallaby backs made repeated half breaks without ever manufacturing a try apart from Mortlock’s fluke intercept (yes, look I’m sorry, but intercepts are always flukes). It was just a whole team effort, always bustling, always harrying, never giving the All Blacks an inch of breathing space.

As for the All Blacks, they just imploded with spectacular apathy, if there is such a thing. They had only scraps of possession to play with, not because they aimed for a low-possesion game as they did in Auckland, but simply because they coughed up the ball at every opportunity, lost their lineouts yet again and kicked without direction. When they did have the ball, they never looked like scoring anyway — well, apart from Muliana’s non-try.

The better team won on the day, the All Blacks demonstrated their infuriating inconsistency at exactly the wrong time. And now it’s over to the Australian fans and media for the usual graceless crowing.

Two of three, boys, two out of three. You can keep the icing but we’ve got the cake.

16 Nov

by Paul Waite
16 Nov 2003

Once again the game of rugby has shown itself to be a unique stage for a team which takes the field with fire and passion.

Once again the All Blacks retire to the meaningless also-rans match-up of the 3rd and 4th playoff in a Rugby World Cup having lost a semi-final everyone expected them to win on previous form.

With the clarity that hindsight lends, the New Zealanders had lost this test before they even did the haka. Some might point to the horrendously telegraphed intercept try that Spencer so generously delivered to Stirling Mortlock as the turning point, but that would be a mistake. Squabbling over this and that incident, or particular individual performances is to miss the point entirely.

The Wallabies simply took the field with a tsunami of motivation behind them and were unstoppable. For two whole weeks their backs had been whipped raw by the scorn and criticism of their own people. They had lost the Bledisloe Cup to New Zealand earlier in the season, and had under-performed in the Tri-Nations. Nobody gave them a hope in hell of winning this semi-final.

The perfect spot to be in, from Eddie Jones’ perspective. Out from the corner they came, with nothing to lose and everything to win. Add in that usual Australian technique and teamwork and they played like they had seventeen men on the field last night.

The All Blacks, for their part, have simply found their appropriate level in the rugby world order.

One of the most respected rugby writers on rugby in New Zealand, Terry McClean always used to say that what interested him most about the game was the way it revealed how men and teams reacted under great pressure. This All Black team was found out. It reacted poorly to the pressure of being denied posession for long periods of play and getting behind on the scoreboard. It lacked both the leadership and the teamwork basics which are needed to combat that kind of situation.

The fact that the All Blacks are, all aspects of the game considered, a mediocre team in World terms shouldn’t be a cause for dismay. They are what they are, and they did what they could. There should be none of the recrimination we saw after the 1999 World Cup.

Both team and coach gave of their best and were measured under the extreme pressure of a one-off sudden death test match in the Rugby World Cup. The message to All Black fans is: accept the truth as it stands.

Where to from here?

Well it was, after all, just a knockout tournament. A greatly important festival of rugby it may be, but in the end it is simply a single test loss, and should be seen in perspective.

Next season it will be business as usual, with the tour of England to New Zealand to look forward to. Hopefully John Mitchell will be of a mind to stay on as coach, if invited to do so since he has worked many changes thus far, and would undoubtedly move the team forward even further having learned the lessons this tournament has taught.

The player base at the top level has never been better and there is plenty of hope for the future of the New Zealand game on the world stage.

That’s the great thing about rugby. There’s always the next game to look forward to.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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13 Nov

Semi-Final Fever
by Paul Waite
13 Nov 2003

The past few years have done All Black fans no favours.

Since the awful 1998 season, the Wallabies have had a habit of coming out onto the paddock, letting us get a sniff of a win, and then playfully knocking over a winning injury-time penalty before patting us on the head and going up to collect whatever Cup it was.

This season we’re seemingly on the up and over that bleak time of trial and tribulation and losses, but the nagging worry that the dying beast has one last death-dealing swipe of the tail left in it is impossible to shake.

Looking at the whole season you’d have to say the All Blacks should do a bit of swiping themselves, and knock the Australians aside by 20 points at minimum. They have superior speed and skills in the back division, and huge grunt and committment in the pack. Looking across the park there isn’t a man you’d swap; the All Blacks are better, man-for-man, from 1 to 15 hell, make that from 1 to 22.

Eddie Jones and a tag-team of Wallaby has-beens in the Aussie media have been trying whip up a bit of niggle. I can’t even remember the details, it’s been so pathetic, but largely on the lines of Spencer being a weak link and ‘roughing’ him up or something.

The All Black management sensibly kept ‘Los well out of it which is more than the silly Pommy management did with Jonny Wilkinson. The poor bastard was wheeled out and was subjected to a ritual mauling by his own country’s press, who basically kept asking variations on the question “why are you playing crap?”, interspersed with “are you crumbling under the pressure”. The poor guy was literally shaking. Not the best preparation for the most important game in his career to date.

And people wonder why the All Blacks hold the World’s media at arm’s length. Take a wild guess.

Getting back to the issue at hand, the overall feeling coming across the Tasman via the media is a mixture of resignation and desperation. Either Eddie is in the process of pulling off the mother of all ‘fast ones’ and has a marvellous turn-around lined up for its unveiling on Saturday night, or there will be a lot of very sad Australians weeping into their glasses come 9 o’clock.

From a New Zealand standpoint the up and down form of the All Blacks in this tournament isn’t confidence-inspiring stuff. But a lot of that was due to the revolving door selection policy during the pool games. This current Bledisloe Cup winning combo has only just got back together, and has had one cobweb-busting blow-out against the Welsh (best forgotten) and one pretty good ‘un against The Bokke, where the forwards were magnificent, but the backs stuttered.

The time is definitely ripe for them to put it all together.

An added bonus, is the motivation engendered in the All Blacks by the knowledge that they have been bridesmaids too many times in previous World Cups. The most recent is one of the worst, and resonates most strongly with this Saturday – the knockout in the semi-final in 1999 by France.

Somehow it’s worse to be kicked out of the comp in the semis. So near yet so far. A loss in the Final is fine – best team on the day etc. etc. A loss in the quarters is simply a case of not being good enough, but to get to the semis and lose is the pits. This team will not want to be repeating the debacle of 1999, where the most devastating aspect of the game was the capitulation up front, rather than the actual loss itself. There will be strong words on this, and I’m confident that this team has the mental and physical strength to win this semi-final confrontation hands down.

So as semi-final fever builds to its height, and Eddie’s mouth starts to overheat and little wisps of steam are seen wafting about his collar, we have only one thing left to say:

Go Black!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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13 Nov

Bok for entree — anyone for roast Wallaby?
by Rick Boyd
13 Nov 2003

So New Zealand barbied the Bokke 29 – 9, but not without the stress levels shooting through the ceiling, last seen heading out past Pluto at close to the speed of light.

First the good news. The basics were solid for the All Blacks — and the Springboks, which is about the only good news they get. All Black lineouts fine, only one lost. Scrums solid. Rucks and mauls good. Three tries to none scored. Defence capable. The All Blacks head for Sydney and a showdown with Australia next weekend. The Springboks head for the airport and a very depressing trip home.

Commiserations to the old enemy. You were committed, you were solid, but you were your own worst enemies. Your mistake rate was atrocious, your backs might as well have been cardboard cutouts. At least it wasn’t a hiding.

And the reason it wasn’t a hiding is because of the bad news. This would have to be the first equal worst All Black game of the year in terms of back line skill, right up there with the shocker against England.

Dropped balls, knock ons, poor passes, bad positioning. Some great breaks that begged to be try scoring opportunities slaughtered through crap support, crap hands and crap decision making. Sloppy, disorganised and slack. If the Springboks hadn’t been so enthusiastically contributing to their own demise with an even higher mistake rate, this game would probably have been lost. And as for McDonald’s kicking — don’t tempt me. He should be out of the team next week and Umaga back in. Hopefully that will give a lot steadier platform to launch the back three. I don’t care who does the kicking. Carter would be good but Mauger was the best attacking back today.

This All Black team just cannot seem to get it together all at once. They either fail in the basics and succeed in the attacking complexities, or succeed in the basics and fail in the attack. If they ever combine both, watch out.

But since we won, let’s have some more good news. First, we won, did I mention that? Second, if we’re going to go further in this cup, succeeding in the basics will probably serve us better. The Australians are pretty shaky there themselves and we absolutely must get them right against either England or France.

Speaking of which, what about those semi-finals:

Anything could happen.

Well, that covers my arse for all eventualities, as well as providing an appropriate summary of this world cup.


What should happen – France to win by a healthy margin. France are looking good. Strong in the tight, effective in the loose, fluid in the backs. Plus a precision goal kicker. It looks like they’ve got it all. You can just sense they are gathering, like a big blue panther, to unleash a totally overwhelming assault on the English and send them home as thoroughly demolished as the All Blacks did in 1995. England, while remaining a tight, cohesive, well prepared unit, are starting to look a little worse for wear. Still strong in the tight, but maybe a little less effective in the loose, and the backs — well, there’s always Jonny Wilkinson, isn’t there?

What could happen – England by a few points on penalties. The French have not really been pressured in this world cup, and France will always be France. Who is to say that their fluid, complete performance against Ireland won’t magically transform into a flaky, risky, headless chicken hara kiri against England when England’s forwards meet them on equal terms and the English backs stonewall them? The English have done this for years. Add a bit of niggle — and there’s no team more experienced than the English at bending the rules — and the French may get frustrated and lapse back into their old undisciplined ways. It’s not my pick but it’s quite feasible. I saw it happen at Park de Princes in 1991 and it could just as easily happen in Sydney.

New Zealand v Australia:

What should happen – New Zealand by a healthy margin. New Zealand to continue their impressive forward improvement against an always doubtful Wallaby forward pack. Australia have the backs as individual talents, but their teamwork and understanding has been shit (something like ‘the hole is greater than the sum of its farts’). New Zealand’s backs are brilliant when the mood strikes them and if the All Blacks put it all together it could be a flogging.

What could happen – Australia by a jammy late penalty (who’d have picked it). This is the New Zealand v New Zealand scenario. Who knows, the Wallabies might spark up for this game. If they can lift against anyone, it would be against New Zealand. And this All Black team has repeatedly shown they are capable of awful fluctuations in performance. Another nightmare with the lineouts, another mish mash back line performance of mis-timed combinations and leaky defence, and yes, Australia could jam a win at the wire.

Whatever happens, I’m still pretty happy with 2003. Super 12 won, Bledisloe Cup regained, Tri Nations won, into world cup semi-finals … it’s only the loss to England that bugs me and we can fix that quite easily when they visit us next year. And if we do bomb out of the world cup, maybe people will finally realise that it is a great tournament, but not the be-all and end-all of rugby. We’ve still got a winning record against all comers except England this year.

And if we win, even by beating England, we won’t be world champions, and we still won’t have had a winning year over England. But we will be world cup holders and I will need to suck on a crate of lemons to wipe the smile off my face.

13 Nov

Stop the wails over Wales
by Rick Boyd
13 Nov 2003

Now that the euphoria has settled and the Welshmen have disposed of all the tissues (over a LOSING performance — interesting mind set, but there’s a message in there somewhere…) let’s take a look at the All Blacks-Wales game n the cold, hard light of day.

Firstly, let’s lay to rest the predictable “if that’s all you can do against Wales, South Africa will murder you” comments. When has that ever made sense? Who won the 1991 world cup? The team that squeaked home in a trouser-filling scare against the Paddies in Dublin. Who won the 1995 world cup? The team that couldn’t win a test before or after. Who won a certain 1999 semi-final? The team that was dumped by 50 points by the same opponent earlier in the year. Rugby doesn’t work like an equation. There are too many variables. Nothing has changed for the South Africa-New Zealand quarter final. New Zealand aren’t a shoe-in because they put 50 points on the Bokke in the first tri nations game. South Africa aren’t a shoe-in because the All Blacks went astray against the Taffs. It’s a one-off, knock out game. New Zealand have the backs to win it but they need more cohesion up front and less errors all round.

So what did happen v Wales? John Eales would have us believe that New Zealand’s soft underbelly has been exposed. I rather think John Eales’soft head has been exposed.

Item 1. The All Blacks are inconsistent. They have been for years. Strangely, professional, full-time athletes seem to be less reliable and more error-prone than their part-time, amateur predecessors. Whatever the reason, take nothing for granted. This world cup has been wide open from the start. If there’s a good side to this, it was that most of the mistakes in the Welsh game came from pushing the running game too hard, rather than simple unforced errors.

Item 2. Nobody expected Wales to win this game, least of all Wales themselves. How hard is to to motivate a team to display an iron-willed killer instinct when the result is a gimme? Buck Shelford’s team might have done it, Ruben Thorne’s team have no chance. Combine that with a Welsh team totally without pressure — they had nothing to lose and could throw themselves into the game with wild abdondon, completely free of any expectation. Will they play like that against England next week? You’d be a brave man to put money on that.

Item 3. What were the All Blacks looking for from this game? Judging by the style from the opening whistle, Mitchell sent them into this game to play a mirror image of their last two Tri-Nations games. There they prepared themselves for pressure playing a tight, kicking game. Against Wales it seems to me they were pressuring themselves for a throw-caution-to-the-winds running game. Balls run out from their own 22. Pushing every pass. Even the forwards running like three-quarters. Does anyone think this happened by accident? They played one-dimensional, froth and bubble to see where it would take them.

Item 4. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The wider you open up your game, the bigger holes you leave. If the All Blacks defence looked like shit, which it did, because that’s what it was, it wasn’t only because of poor tackling. They took chances, they extended themselves, they were prepared to concede points in their attempt to maximise scoring opportunities. They will probably be disppointed they didn’t score more, given the kind of game they were trying to play. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that they put 50 points on Wales. As long as the points conceded stays below points scored, that has to be a positive thing.

Item 5. This is still not a settled combination. There’s Jack to come back in the forwards, and in the backs McDonald remains an imperfect choice at centre. His goal kicking was acceptable, just, his attack moderate, but his defence suspect. Do we risk bringing Umaga back in for his defence and experience? Then who takes the kicks? Carter? It’s a toughie.

Item 6. Professional rugby has meant that there is far more conformity in styles and skills throughout the major rugby nations, and the All Blacks can’t get away with playing poorly any more. Just because countries like Wales have points scored against them doesn’t mean their play is not up with the pace. As I have said until I’m sick of hearing it, modern laws promote positive use of the ball. A small dominance can lead to big numbers. When that dominance lapses momentarily, it doesn’t mean the team has gone down the gurgler. Watch the play, not the scoreline (as long as it’s a winning score of course).

Item 7. Credit where its due. New Zealand’s wobbles weren’t due only to their own errors. This was a Wales team with nothing to lose, and with enough firepower to benefit from such an attitude. Despite their average record, they’re not a bad team. I said earlier in the tournament I hope Wales would give New Zealand a bit of a test in the pool games. Good work Taffs. It probably wasn’t high on your agenda, but I think it did the All Blacks much more good than a 50-0 walkover.

Item 8. The above are some good reasons why the game went the way it did. But genuine concerns remain about this All Black team. Their complete and utter inability to fix ongoing lineout problems is a major worry. Their lack of authority in the tight must be overcome to wrap up South Africa, France and England. I think they can do it on the day. I just hope they manage to make that day one where they actually play South Africa, France or England.