On paper you can’t really argue with the success of the All Blacks in 2008. With 14 wins from 16 games, and the Iveco Series, the Tri-Nations, the Bledisloe Cup and a Grand Salm all to their name, this has been a satisfactory year after the disaster of 2007. So how did the coaches and players measure up this year?
Thank goodness we seem to have seen the end of rotation and rest, despite claims from Graham Henry that All Blacks couldn’t be expected to play test matches over three consecutive weekends. The end of year tour (comprising the Bledisloe test in Hong Kong and the Grand Slam) put paid to that theory, with Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu playing in all five tests, Joe Rokocoko playing six games over four weeks, Ma’a Nonu playing four consecutive tests and the bulk of team playing three in a row. I suspect that a large part of this shift in mantra came from the players themselves, with Ali Williams being one in particular who has always been keen to start in every test. With continuity in team selection on the Grand Slam, we finally started to see combinations forming and a real understanding within the team emerged – this was no better demonstrated than by their exceptional defensive record during the Grand Slam test matches.
Despite the trophy cabinet being full and all titles claimed this year, there are three key points that I’m not happy about:
Inability of the team to win without Richie McCaw
It was no coincidence that the two test matches the All Blacks lost this year were the two that Richie McCaw didn’t play during the Tri-Nations due to injury. The test match in Sydney against the Wallabies was without a doubt the All Blacks’ worst game in 2008, and there were questions asked over selections, lack of a specialist opensider and in particular our defence
Admission of being out-coached and not up to speed on the ELVs
How they could not be up to speed on the ELVs given they’d had an entire S14 to watch teams play under the trial laws, not to mention players in key positions who had performed under the ELVs, will forever remain a mystery. The admission was not only a major lapse in judgement at a time when they still needed to get the public back on board, but was symptomatic of the trio’s inability to adapt and change with the modern game. Thankfully that seemed to come right as the year wore on, but the reality is that the home unions were cannon fodder so it remains to be seen how they fare tactically against South Africa and Australia next year.
Continuing to play players out of position
Having selected Rudi Wulf and Anthony Tuitavake as wingers, we then had to watch Richard Kahui (a specialist midfielder) being played on the wing instead. After limited chances, Wulf was discarded for the end of year tour. There were experiments with So’oialo at openside and blindside, using Adam Thomson at openside, Jerome Kaino at No 8, and moving Carter to 2nd 5 to accommodate Stephen Donald at 1st 5. Hopefully the lesson has been learnt that So’oialo is a No 8, Kahui is best at centre despite performing admirably on the wing, Donald is limited as an international 1st 5, Thomson is not up to the role of openside at top level, and Kaino’s best position is at blindside.
I would have added a fourth point over Sione Lauaki had they not finally seen the light and dropped him from the sqaud after the Tri-Nations (though I question his selection in the first instance). Player loyalty is admirable, but blinkered loyalty in the light of continual poor performance is another. Enough said.
Some stand-out perfomances by key senior All Blacks this year. Those who deserve special mention are Richie McCaw, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, and Dan Carter.
First accolades must go to captain McCaw. While continuing to perform as the world’s best openside flanker, his captaincy skills finally reached maturity and we now see a captain of true international standing. I am frankly incredulous that he failed to win Player of the Year both at the IRB and the NZRU Steinlager Awards – perhaps the fact that our own NZ judges couldn’trecognise the significance of McCaw’s playing abilities mirrors that of the IRB judging panel. If ever there was a leader who fell in the vein of “follow my example”, then it’s McCaw. I could wax lyrical about his work rate on attack and defence, his ability to read the game, his ball carrying skills, his lineout work – the list is endless. What I will say though, is that without McCaw this All Black side, even with the mercurial Dan Carter, becomes disjointed and vulnerable.
Ali Williams played in all 16 tests this year. His lineout work with nearly faultless, his overall game has stepped up to a new level, and to me he embodies the passion for the jersey. Ali Williams would never say he was too tired to play, or turn down the chance to start in a test. Most importantly, he proved the point that the modern professional player isn’t too precious to front up week to week in test matches.
Tony Woodcock is one of the un-sung troopers, but continued to do his hard work both in the scrums and at ruck time. This year he was rewarded with tries, the standout one being against Australia in Auckland worked from a set move at a lineout. With the departure of Carl Hayman he has taken on the mantle of senior front rower, and will only continue to make his mark as a senior player in this All Black side.
Brad Thorn, despite having a few head-rushes on the field this year, has proven to be the workhorse of the pack. His ability to gain ground as a ball carrier and flatten attackers with his tackles have been a pleasure to watch. However, it is his efforts in the scrum that should be heralded. There is no doubt that his presence as tighthead lock in the scrum has made the job easier for the new TH props taking over from Carl Hayman, and the All Black scrum was seldom bettered when Thorn was packing down in it.
Mils Muliaina was back to his best form on the end of year tour, but more importantly showed an assuredness and calmness that marked him out as something special in this team. His organisation from the back has been a standout, and it was his calming presence off the bench and wide pass to Joe Rokocoko that saved the All Blacks from defeat against Munster. Two tries to his name against England were just reward for the try-saving ankle tap he’d managed at the start of the second half.
Ma’a Nonu has had his doubters, and I put my hand up as one of them. But it’s always great to be proven wrong, and Nonu has done that in style. His game has come on in leaps and bounds, and his ability to straighten the line proved invaluable in the UK. He has increased his workrate around the field, and his defence has improved immensely – especially from set piece where he was prone to rushing the line earlier in the season. His hard, strong running has seen him score a bag of tries this year. One can only imagine what a nightmare it must be for the opposition to front up on defence againstour five-eighth pairing of Carter and Nonu.
Dan Carter, even when his kicking boots failed him, remains the consumate all-round player. While his attacking game remains as sharp as ever, his defence in combination with McCaw has become a formidable weapon for the All Blacks. There is absolutely no chance of getting through the inside channel against this All Black side with Carter and McCaw lying in wait for you. Even with some ordinary goal kicking by his usual high standards, Carter clocked up 203 points for the test season.
Pleasing improvement in our lineout, which is now a consistent source of ball on our throw. Gone are the days of ducking and diving around before the ball was thrown in, there is a calmness that has improved our accuracy no end. Better yet, we contest the opposition thro
w to good success. The scrum is the All Blacks dominant set piece, and should continue to be so.
The loose trio, now that they’ve had a chance to gel without rotation, is a lethal and complimentary combination. Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu both came back from the wilderness and proved themselves at this level. We have depth in the midfield, and talent emerging at lower levels both in the forwards and three quarters.
However, we still lack international-class replacements for our two key players – McCaw and Carter. While it is impossible to replace perfection, this is one area that needs to be focussed on next year as without one or both of these players our game falters. It is the collective responsibility of the coaches and the team that we attempt to wean ourselves from relying on these two. There are glimpses that this is beginning, so I can only hope that we don’t see more key players heading offshore in the next year or so.