25 Jul

Last Gasp Try Sinks Springboks!
by Paul Waite
25 Jul 2004

Over the past decade, as All Black fans, we’ve become so accustomed to watching the team lose important tests in the dying minutes or even seconds to Australia (various Bledisloes) and the Springboks (the ’95 World Cup drop-goal), that it’s a very strange feeling when Lady Luck swings back in our favour.

There’s a moment of fist-in-the-air, ferocious “suck on that, you losers” joy, followed by a vague feeling of guilt. It’s probably a kind of heart-felt empathy, with us all being so in tune with what they must be feeling. Anyway, it only lasted about 12 seconds, so it isn’t much of a worry.

As with any test, there are positives and negatives. The positives are firstly the win of course, closely followed by what the win was based on – our continued development of the set-pieces. Without these, we wouldn’t have had all the possesion to squander before finally nailing a try in the last 30 seconds.

The negatives were, however manifold, as evidenced by a very quiet, almost defensive performance from the coaches in the after-match press conference.

The forwards did not front up for the first half at all. They played like worried men, constantly looking at what the opposition were doing instead of getting stuck in and asking hard questions. Mauls were ponderously formed, and driven without belief, inevitably getting nowhere. Players driving the ball up were left stranded as tight-forwards ball-watched then, realising they should be helping, rushed in to rescue the pill just in the nick of time, and thereby nullifying the go-forward effort. The much talked-about flat-backline approach of Wayne Smith just resulted in the creation of a narrow war-zone of futility, where all the All Blacks’ attacking options were nullified. In short, during the first 40 minutes the team were flat as a pancake, playing the wrong tactics, and being soundly beaten.

Part and parcel of the diffident, almost apologetic approach to the game was the dopey defensive effort which saw us leak three tries, all of which were eminently preventable, resulting as they did from gross mistakes rather than Springbok pressure and/or out and out skill. With all due respect to a fired-up South African team, two out of those three tries had no business being scored against an All Black side worth it’s salt – they were genuinely “soft”.

All Black captain Tana Umaga confirmed after the game that the team had been given “the talking to” in the half-time interval, and the result was a much tighter and more concerted effort from the forwards.

The Springboks tactics were simple but effective. They had come with the idea of pushing the offside rules past the limit in order to quench the All Blacks’ wide game, and were prepared to commit professional fouls every time the All Blacks looked like getting in a scoring position inside their 22m. Not original tactics by any means, but implemented with superb effectiveness in this test.

The ONLY way to nullify these tactics when the referee, as in this case, is letting the opposition get away with offside tactics, is to smash the ball up the guts through the forwards and/or use your first-five eighth to support with a tactical kicking game. Since Carlos Spencer doesn’t have a tactical kicking game, and was keen on running sideways before shovelling a hospital pass into Dan Carter’s hands so he could be nicely creamed by the defence all night, the only option was the hard yakka.

History shows that it took until the last quarter of the match before the penny dropped loudly enough for the All Blacks to make a fist of it and drive well enough to create the try they needed.

Before that, the aforementioned Springbok professional infringements had kept the men in Black in the hunt via Dan Carter’s boot, and there were only three points between the teams with minutes to go. In the end the winning of this test came off the back of a mistake and a triumph.

The All Blacks drove the ball to within 5m, then made their (by now) usual mistake and knocked it on, conceding a scrum. This is where the set-piece development came to the fore, as the All Blacks scrum took the Springbok unit apart bulldozing it to rubble and going over the top of it to win a turnover put-in.

After that it took 15 phases to wear the desperate Bok defence down to the point where an overlap was created, and which Carlos Spencer, in his only good moment of the test threw a wobbly pass out to Mils Muliaina who handed off to Doug Howlett to score and win the test in the final 30 seconds of time.

New Zealand hospitals no doubt experienced a huge surge in Emergency Admissions just after the final whistle, and pacemaker manufacturers were probably rubbing their hands together with glee at the anticipated increased sales.

Despite the cliff-hanger result it definitely wasn’t one of rugby’s classics, this test, and the All Black coaches have plenty to work on before taking on Australia in Sydney in two weeks.

The old refrain “a win is a win, and we’ll take it” comes to mind.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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18 Jul

It's Shinola!
by Paul Waite
18 Jul 2004

The Bledisloe is safe for another season, and that’s the most important thing to focus on, for a little while. Graham Henry is right, let’s savour it.

The conditions have been called “very, very tough” (Nathan Sharp), and “atrocious” (some dumbass journalist), but in fact what we had was an averagely cold winter’s evening with some rain. What we didn’t have was the mud of a badly drained footy pitch, heavy kit, and a heavy leather ball of yesteryear. So don’t talk to me of “atrocious”, that’s complete bollocks, and no excuse for some of the crap passing and catching (or lack of it) going on in our backline. The phrase “couldn’t catch a cold” came to mind, especially when Rokocoko gifted the Wallabies an ill-deserved try from a fuckup under an aimless high ball from Giteau.

Ok, let’s get the other gripes out of the way whilse we’re at it. The Australian defence was good but not superhuman. With the amount of posession and territory the All Blacks had, there should have been more points on the board, end of story. The reason this didn’t occur was due mainly to some bad options taken at times we should have scored. One which comes to mind was a silly attempt at a ‘miracle’ pop-pass off the floor from Umaga from about 5m out when it was crying out just to be rucked again. Instead we blew the attack. That kind of thing occurred too many times, and was the reason we risked losing the game from a fluke 7-pointer (something Australians have been adept at in the past) right until 4 minutes left when Carter nailed a penalty to make it 16-7.

So, it wasn’t at all clinical the way, to take an example, the All Blacks of 1996 were in their 43-6 demolition of Australia at Athletic Park that year in what has been rightfully dubbed The Perfect Game. Also played in “atrocious” conditions (this time with the mud), the Australians were left in NO doubt who was second best on the scorebaord. In this test we have more or less 80% territory and struggled to put the game away. The effect was the Wallabies were in with a chance of winning the test for some 76 minutes.

Ok, the negatives are simply a reality check in case any of you were thinking this All Black team on a 5-0 winning streak were Supermen on their way to conquering the World of Rugby or something, but now the positives.

The conditions called for an “up the jumper” game and that’s what we got. In previous incarnations the All Blacks have tried to give the ball some air even in this kind of weather, and it has usually back-fired. Not this time, as the pack set to and ground their opponents into the soaking turf with a relentless game of retaining posession and smashing it up the guts.

To be frank, the Australian forwards didn’t seem to have the stomach for it, and the backs the same. In particular Larkham just looked like he wanted to be just anywhere else in the World but out on that freezing cold, wet pitch. His mis-kicks were an indication of a mind totally switched off from its normal focus.

The set pieces went well for us. The scrum was an angry animal that the Australian pack couldn’t tame. Every time it went down snapping and snarling, the boys in yellow found themselves giving ground. Only some clever collapses by newbie Aussie tight-head Al Baxter, together with a confused Irish referee, gave them some fortuitous penalties to relieve pressure. Their scrummaging wasn’t going to get them anywhere.

In the lineout it was a mixed bag. New Zealand competed well and disrupted the Australian ball, but also had their own stolen a few times. Overall a win on points to the Blacks though.

The most satisfying thing though was the way we finally had more support at the breakdown again. Absent since Dunedin, it was a moot point whether we would reproduce it for this test, but thankfully it was there once again. The result was a lot of solid posession, and some very good work in close by the pack driving the ball, and grinding out territory with the pick and go technique.

So, to summarize it, this test was a nail-biter due to the failure to be clinical enough to score the points which should have resulted from the posession and territory we had. Nevertheless it was well-played and a deserved win resulted.

But the test was, pretty much, a one-off. Next week we face the Springboks in Christchurch, followed the week after by the Wallabies again in Sydney.

The team have to keep improving on what they are doing, and not sit still in the belief they have it made.

Still, there’s no harm in taking a day or two just to admire that Bledisloe Cup sitting in the trophy cabinet, eh?

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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15 Jul

Shit or Shinola?
by Paul Waite
15 Jul 2004

Which is it? Truth is I can’t answer that question. At least, not until around 9pm on Saturday evening when we know what happened in the Bledisloe test at the Caketin.

So far this season the All Blacks have only really performed well in one test – the first down in Dunedin. In that game we saw the ghosts of old All Blacks piling in behind the tight-five as they rampaged over the top of the English in a Black Wave. The age-old phrase “hunting as a pack” was on everyone’s lips in the aftermath.

Since then we’ve seen the team move back towards the “Super 12″ style, with forwards strung out in the backline, waiting for God knows what, and looking like a bunch of would-be Leaguies. Lack of support at the breakdown has re-surfaced, making them look like a good immitation of the team which crapped out at the 2004 World Cup, and a general case of the dropsies and piss-poor tackling technique has done the rest.

The only shining light in all of this is that the lineout has improved a thousand-fold on last season. This is no small bickies itself, but it isn’t anything like what we saw in Dunedin either.

The problem I have is this could all be explained in a very worrying way. I hope it isn’t right, or we’re in deep shit. The theory goes like this.

Back in Dunedin, Graham Henry was at pains to tell everyone that the preparation time was too short, only a few days to get the team ready for the World Champions. I remember the players saying they’d had all sorts of new and wonderful ideas and techniques brought to their attention by the Brains Trust of Henry, Smith and Hansen, but it was too much to absorb, so they would be sticking to”the basics” for this test.

History showed that “the basics”, implemented with passion, was what blew the English away.

Since then, the theory goes, the Brains Trust have had time to impart their wisdom, and in the same period we’ve seen the All Black’s game fall away.

So, is it shit or shinola?

Let’s wait and see what it smells like at 9pm on Saturday.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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