21 Jun

by Rob Wallace
21 Jun 2004

Frankly, I’m pretty disappointed with the England team on this tour. They didn’t play much good rugby, and I thought their off the ball play was even more cynical than their usual breakdown ball-killing. Add in the confused, completely out-of-touch rhetoric from Woodward and Dallaglio, and you have an ordinary team in disarray.

I think Wynne Gray got it right with his Herald column today “England ignored the self-assurance they used to become world champions; they were shown up in both tests as a group who resorted to bully-boy tactics when their skills deserted them. It has happened to all top rugby sides on the slide. When age hurts or skills deteriorate, the indiscipline escalates.”

That pretty much sums it up for me – ugly play by a bunch of arrogant heavies who lack the talent to actually outplay the opposition.

As for Shaw, it was a calculated deliberate attempt to harm an opposition player. There was nothing accidental about it, and it was certainly cardable. You can argue about the colour, but if Dickinson from 30m away thought he was aiming for the head then red was appropriate. Shaw was as stupid as Cohen in the previous game. There was a helluva lot of off-the-ball incidents in this test, most instigated by England. As for Robinson, it was lucky no-one saw his earlier little right hook that may or may not have connected. He should just ease it back a notch because the Aussies will wind him up nicely otherwise.

Back to the NZ players. Meeuws seemed to have a much tougher time with White this week, with White and Regan also able to upset Mealamu. Meeuws probably needs a few games like this to sort out the technical aspects of LH – I’m sure he’s strong enough, it’s just fine details he needs to work on. The English scrum was very sneaky and probably out-thought us given they were missing a lock. Jack had a very good game, and while Holah played well I think it was clear he’s not quite in the same league as McCaw. Rush has been a revelation – I wondered how he would foot it back at international level but he works hard, appears in all the right places and makes few mistakes. He’s just what we need at the moment.

Marshall didn’t have one of his better games and I wonder if he injured his left hand as he threw a couple of shocking passes to his right, both that were yards forward. He was also back to his ‘meerkat’ state of popping up his head and looking around, before throwing tiny short passes up everywhere, rather than the long wide pass.

I’m not sure about this backline alignment, being so flat, but I’ve now twice heard Smith saying this is what he wants. Carlos just gets so lateral with it….

The backs didn’t get a lot of good quality ball, but used what they had well. I thought Evans found out how big the step up really is – he needs to get his basics sorted out first and be a little less expansive until the game opens up.

Overall, while I’m delighted with a 2-0 series win over England, there is still a lot of room for improvement on that last performance.

13 Jun

Hunting As A Pack
by Paul Waite
13 Jun 2004

We’ve had to wait for eight long years to see it, but at last we’ve got an All Black pack playing as a committed unit, rather than as eight individuals undertaking “roles”.

The first test of the Graham Henry coaching regime was won on the back of a superb set-piece effort, and an all-round committment by the forwards to play for each other, to complement each other, and to take the initiative off their opponent and keep it.

For the part of the unfortunate English, they bore the brunt of a savage All Black hunger to avenge the defeat last year in Wellington, and they never recovered from the initial onslaught which started in the first seconds with a marvellous breakout from his own 22m up to halfway by New Zealand winger Joe Rokocoko and went from there for the whole 80 minutes.

Caught cold on a freezing Dunedin evening, the English will no doubt regroup and come back strongly next week at Eden Park in Auckland. The All Blacks have lit a fire under them and pride will do the rest.

But there are areas of weakness which are not easily fixed.

The absence of Neil Back in the No.7 jersey means the English lack a true opensider, and their slowness to the 50-50 ball was ruthlessly exploited by New Zealand last night. The absence of Martin Johnson, a titan in the tight last year in Wellington and later at the World Cup, was also noticeable. By comparison Dallaglio, although an admirable No.8, could offer no inspiration to his troops as they found themselves taking a pounding under the Black Hammer.

Before this test Henry announced that, due to the short preparation of only one week for this game, he would only have the team 40% prepared. If that’s the case, then we eagerly await the other 60%. But this does put the win in perspective, and it is an indicator of what it was based on – simplicity.

Here at Haka since 1996 we have constantly spoken of the need to return to the simple basics of the game, master those, and build a winning combination from that platform. In the intervening period, to over-simplify slightly, we have seen the team trying to run before it could walk instead.

The test last night was built on well-executed set-pieces, and on an All Black pack which hunted as a pack, was hungry for the ball, and working for each other. With that platform, the World-class backline just did what it does best – scored points with some beautifully taken tries.

It’s important that, in an eargerness to improve and impart knowledge, the All Black coaches don’t lose what we saw last night by over-complicating things.

Next week up North, in the warmer climes of Auckland, England will be a very different proposition. Aside from the humiliation of the scoreline and performance in Dunedin, it will be unthinkable to them to leave these shores under the cloud of a two-nil whitewash.

Looking at the overall game last night, we would predict that England will simply redouble their efforts to shut the All Blacks down – the same basic gameplan as for Dunedin, but with venom instead of a lukewarm dribble. The lack of a genuine openside flanker on tour is not fixable in itself, so they will look to turn the whole game into a close-in war of attrition in which the 50-50 ball is not an issue. Tackles will be made, and defensive lines up as offside as they can be to smother opposition attacking options. Possession will be retained for long periods to deny the team wearing Black the ball. The lineout will be targetted as a tool for gaining territory and they will look to dominate there.

Of course the fabled Auckland weather could also play its part. Reknowned for torrential rain, a downpour would play into the English hands as well.

All-in-all it should be an ocassion to relish!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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2 Jun

A New Era
by Paul Waite
2 Jun 2004

Graham Henry has stamped his mark on the All Blacks by dropping former skipper and blindside flanker Rueben Thorne from the squad. Thorne, often described as “Mr. Invisible” by many commentators, paid the price for that lack of presence on the pitch, according to Henry and his fellow All Blacks selection panel members, Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and Brian Lochore.

The other big news from the squad announcement is that Andrew Mehrtens is back. After languishing becalmed in the doldrums for a couple of seasons, the perky No.10 pulled a couple of games out of his top drawer in past weeks, and showed his true class. A new-found enthusiasm for the game and, most importantly, for a stricter training regimen, has brought him back to top-flight rugby where he belongs. In the All Black trial, he once again turned the tide, as he did in the Super 12 final, and though superb passing and option-taking got his team onto the front foot. Although Carlos Spencer is the incumbent and will no doubt start the first test against England, don’t bet against that all changing as the season progresses.

At fullback, another reason for excitement has emerged this season in the person of Nick Evans, the North Harbour and Highlanders No.15. In the All Black trial the vision and skill of this player shone out unmistakably. He is one of those players who seemingly has all the time in the world to do things, no matter what the pressure. According to All Blacks backs coach Wayne Smith he is also one of the fastest players in the country, which makes him an option on the wing. He already doubles as a No.10, and can place-kick. It would be easier to list what the lad can’t do.

Up front, the squad has three specialist locks in Jack, Robinson and Maling. Cover for blindside and lock is provided by Jono Gibbes, another well-deserved pick after a superb Super 12 season leading the Chiefs.

In the front row we have first choice hooker Andrew Hore, backed up by last years incumbent Keven Mealamu. Props are Carl Hayman, Greg Somerville, Tony Woodcock and Kees Meeuws. Plenty of grunt and power there.

At loose-forward some were perhaps surprised to see Xavier Rush get the nod, but he simply played his way in on the trial performance. Good to see the selectors taking Mose Tuiali’i along on a steep learning curve. The flankers more or less looked after themselves, once Thorne was omitted, with McCaw picked as vice-captain, and Holah his understudy No.7. Jerry Collins is seen solely as a No.6 by this panel, and Gibbes also covers that spot.

In midfield, Tana Umaga captains the side from centre, and one in from him at second five-eighth is Dan Carter. Carter’s understudy is the hard-hitting Sam Tuitupou, who offers a totally different set of options to the coaches, but will undoubtedly play a big part in the season to come.

All-in-all a very good squad, with a lot of interchangeability, especially in the backs.

Next comes the learning process over the season, where the coaches gradually teach the squad how they want the game to be played. This is much more interesting than the selection process, and we all hope that this coaching team can, finally, begin to re-establish the All Blacks respect and command of the basics of the game.

We shall see.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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