Groundhog Day anyone?
by Tracey Nelson
28 Jul 2008
Despite a heavy defeat in Sydney and back to back losses in the TriNations, the All Black coaches are continuing to maintain that the Sydney selections were right and the players “would have learned a great deal from the defeat”. Forgive us if we don’t quite believe that anymore, because this “learning” mantra has been trotted out since October in Cardiff last year yet it seems the learning curve has become a bit too steep.
Both Henry and Hansen emphasised at the post-match interviews in Sydney that the All Blacks played most of the rugby and the Wallabies had simply kicked our turnovers back. Thankfully Wayne Smith showed a little more sense in conceding that we had tried to play most of our rugby behind the gain line (not to mention inside our own 22), but once again is this not a lesson that should already have been learned and the problems rectified from past losses?
Suggestions were trotted out that a mixture of youth and inexperience were causal factors in the All Blacks’ error-ridden performance. However, claims that the All Blacks are an inexperienced group just don’t wash because so are the Australians. They had eight players who had never fronted the All Blacks before, so pulling the inexperience card is a pretty lame excuse with the playing field was pretty much level on that count. And if experience is such an important factor, why bench Conrad Smith in favour of a one-test rookie?
A comment from Hansen was ‘We have fought hard to get back and lead in two tests matches we have been behind in and shown a lot of composure and a lot of heart and desire to get back in front, and then maybe when we have done that we might have mentally relaxed.’
Might I suggest that it’s not the players so much as the coaches who mentally relaxed. The reasoning behind subbing the key players who had got us back in front on Saturday night is a mystery even Sherlock Holmes would struggle to solve. Perhaps in the case of Ellis and Hore it was injury related, but the introduction of Lauaki for Braid – our only specialist flanker – was the beginning of the end. In his 32 minutes on the field, Lauaki single handedly turned the ball over seven times and missed four tackles; mistakes that directly cost the All Blacks 14 points.
Minus Braid, and then seven minutes later the hard toiling Somerville, the All Blacks’ struggles at the breakdown increased. Claims that So’oialo was a one man band in this area are wide of the mark, as he only hit a total of 16 rucks out of the 110 the All Blacks had during the game. So’oialo has never been a significant factor at the breakdown, he stands one wide and this week was targetted by the Aussie pick-and-go runners where they made headway over the advantage line all night.
As for composure, the only side showing composure on Saturday night was Australia. Never did they panic, and despite losing a 12 point lead at one stage they simply bided their time and played for territory. We may have had 60% possession, but they had 70% of the territory and rugby is all about playing at the right end of the field (which is not in your own 22, should more than three of you think that).
The frightening thing is, Australia did nothing amazing or out of the ordinary to beat the All Blacks. They just played simple, structured rugby and forced the All Blacks into making mistakes. Other than a couple of linebreaks by Tuqiri, they never threatened to cut us to pieces. But they definitely out-passioned us, it was obvious they were hungrier for the win, more aggressive in the tackle and collision zone, and most importantly had done their homework and targetted the breakdown as one of our weaknesses. They also had the luxury of two kickers in their inside back pairing of Giteau and Barnes, another weakness in the All Black game as Nonu does not kick therefore his only options are to run or pass.
Wholesale changes are not going to be made, that would be a confession the original squad selections were wrong. Instead the coaches must figure out how to work with what they’ve got. In some positions we are very limited, in others we have too much of the same – a sameness that has been shown up by our southern hemisphere opponents. Either way, it’s become obvious that the players they have selected are not wholly capable of playing the high risk running game these coaches are so enamoured of.
Of concern to me is that our coaches have confessed they are struggling to find a game plan to make the most of the new laws. Quite how this is a problem when you have one of the best scrums in the world, the ELVs requiring the opposition backs to stand 5m back from it on defence, and one D. Carter (who made four electric linebreaks on Saturday night) at 1st 5 is beyond my reckoning. Why not take a leaf out of Australia’s book (or should that be Robbie Deans’ book) and play for territory instead of the high-risk offload game that is plainly not the way to win high pressure test matches – or do we need another five losses to ‘learn’ that lesson?
With more major injuries (Hore, Ellis, Cowan), aggravations of existing injuries (Williams) and only a 50:50 chance of McCaw making a comeback this weekend, problems sit like a cloud over the All Blacks. To win at Eden Park they will need to show more composure and structure than in Sydney, or else they risk the Wallabies breaking their 22 year drought in Auckland – a spectre that at the start of the TriNations seemed as remote as the Springboks getting their first ever win in Dunedin.