The basic story of the test reads: Rusty All Blacks concede 12 points, then right the boat, run in some tries and go in 17-12 at half-time. In the second half they get on top with the Aussies whipped and stuffed into a bag, but then Henry subs Stephen Donald (aka The Duck) for Dan Carter and he single-handedly loses a 12 point lead, and the game.
Let’s not beat about the bush, there was a lot wrong with this All Black performance apart from the end-game debacle brought about by the substitutions. In 2007 Graham Henry’s ideas about resting players from rugby back-fired on him big-time when they turned up to the World Cup way off the pace. It seems that nothing has been learned, and resting players after the recent Tri-Nations garnered us a similar result, if less important in the scheme of things.
The All Blacks took the field looking more or less the same as they did at the start of the season’s international campaign, playing in a loose disjointed fashion. All the usual culprits were there in their game, players getting isolated going to ground too fast providing easy pickings for the likes of Pocock, fumbled passes, poor passing in general, shonky lineout and so forth.
This reaped the reward of a 12-0 deficit in the first quarter, before they finally managed to get their systems firing on all eight cylinders again, and replied with a creditable 17 unanswered points to go in 17-12 at half-time. After the restart, the team started really putting it together. The forwards were doing some excellent work, especially Kaino and Read, aided by the ever-present McCaw. At scrum time the Aussies were also in disarray, the looks on their front row priceless as the referee was forced to penalise them several times. In the backs Dan Carter had the team humming and probing for gaps.
In this phase of the test the Aussies were a whipped force. The television cameras showed pained, beaten faces. Then, with twenty minutes or so to go Henry made some key replacements which were to lose us the test, just like that.
On came Toeava for an injured Cory Jane on came Stephen Donald for Dan Carter. John Afoa also came on in the front row. On the plus side Whitelock’s replacement of an out-of-sorts Donnelly at lock was a win.
Right away the subs had an effect, but overall it wasn’t the one Henry was looking for. From a scrum Genia spun the ball wide with a miss-out pass and Toeava, who was standing well out of position too far in-field was suddenly out-flanked. Turning he slipped, and a track the width of two bus lanes opened up down the Aussie left wing. Goodnight nurse. The seven-pointer brought the Wallabies within 5 points. A resurgent Australian outfit was sniffing a change in the wind.
They didn’t have to sniff very hard to catch that scent. The All Blacks were full of fight on defence, but there was one piece of the machinery which was misfiring. A foray up-field from some hard forward driving resulted in an Australian penalty infringment. A kickable penalty to take the points-margin to eight.
Now, many of us on these Aotearoan shores have despised the selection of Stephen Donald for this tour, ahead of up-and-coming Canterbury first-five Colin Slade. More on the whys and wherefors of that later, but one point his supporters were certain of was his goal-kicking. He might run an appallingly stilted backline, he might opt to do badly-executed grubbers and chip-kicks at inappropriate moments, but at least he can nail the goals.
Well he couldn’t even do that. A nice, kickable penalty which would have relieved the pressure and more or less assured the win was missed. Still a 5-point margin.
Fired up by their good fortune the Aussies fetched the sink from their changing shed and hurled it at the All Black lines. The men in black toiled on defence. We were treated to more bad signs from Donald however. Let’s dwell on one of these, because it is instructive to study his methods. The All Blacks were defending in their 22m and got possession of the ball. With the Aussies all packed between the half-way and the 22m Donald looked up and had a decision to make.
Now, as an aspiring All Black test player what would you have done? Would you have hoofed it out into touch perhaps? Or maybe you would have gone to your support and taken it up into contact, to retain possession? Either of those options would have been sane. What did Donald do? Well, all things considered, he thought it would be best to stab a grubber out from the 22m so that the Australians could just pick it up and bring it right back at us. Unbelievable, but more was to come.
A similar situation arose a few minutes later. This time, presumably learning from his last mistake, Donald decided to hoof the ball. Only he kicked it right to a man wearing yellow who didn’t even have to move to catch it just inside his half and run it right back.
But these were just minor points. Indicators of something badly wrong. This all came to a head in the pivotal moment of the test. Once again the All Blacks were encamped on defence in their own 22m, right where Donald seemed to want them, and the Australians were slavering like a pack of rabid Dobermans trying to get the ball over the line. Heroic defence drove them back, and the pressure forced a turnover. It was the 79th minute, possession had been regained at a critical moment, and the ball was in Donald’s hands.
All he needed to do was hoof it into the stands out beyond the 22m.
But Donald’s brain seems to work on a frequency different from the rest of us. It’s the same band as Radio BOZO, which I’ve heard, plays nothing but static.
Instead of kicking a safe touch he kicked it upfield straight to an Australian who, surprise surprise, ran it back in what was the final wave of attacks which unsurprisingly brought a try which O’Connor converted for a two point victory.
Why all the Donald-bashing? The reason is simple – he shouldn’t be in the squad.
When Dan Carter was out last season recovering from his achilles rupture, we went through this process of trying Stephen Donald as All Black first-five replacement. He showed then that although he’s not a bad player at Super Rugby level, and might look godly to some at Provincial level, he has neither the skillset nor temperament for test rugby. He simply can’t think and execute in the timeframes that test rugby demands. I thought we’d asked those questions, and got the answers already.
But instead, as with poor lumbering Sione Lauaki who also kept being selected despite numerous games showing he simply wasn’t a test player, we are stuck with The Duck for a whole Grand Slam Tour.
To add insult to injury the lad who should be touring, Colin Slade, who came on for Aaron Cruden and did the business under severe pressure in the recent Bledisloe Cup winning test match and showed that maybe he does have what it takes to play test rugby, is languishing back at home playing in a Provincial competition.
What a waste. Slade is missing out on a key development tour which may have seen him rise to be the obvious backup for Dan Carter for 2011.
With Sitiveni Sivivatu out with injury there is a spare squad place. If Henry had any sense he would be giving Slade the call right now, swallowing his pride and admitting he and his other selectors got it wrong. With Cory Jane under an injury cloud he can even justify Slade’s call-up on utility value as he covers full-back and wing.
I’d rather watch a Marx Brothers movie than watch Stephen Donald trying to play test rugby again for the All Blacks. At least I’d be able to laugh at a parade of stupidity and ineptitude and feel good about it.
New Zealand 24 (Jimmy Cowan, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu tries; Dan Carter 3 cons, 1 pen)
Australia 26 (Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, James O’Connor tries; Matt Giteau con; O’Connor 1 con)