14 Sep

A Heart-stopper At Ballymore
by Paul Waite
14 Sep 2008

solr_pmAll you middle-aged New Zealand fans who were previously worried about the health of the old ticker can be assured that it must be as strong as an ox’s this morning. If you made it through the hair-raising final five minutes of this test, where heart-rates throughout the land must have been pushed up into the zone labeled “Seek Urgent Medical Assistance” on your local gym’s exer-cycle consoles, are either now recovering nicely in the CCU, or are going to live to get a birthday telegram from the Queen.

It wasn’t a test for the rugby purist, that’s for sure. But the sight of Richie McCaw hoisting the Bledisloe Cup after a nail-biting 4-point win was enough to warm the heart of any All Black fan.

The win away from home in a Wallaby stronghold was never going to be easy. Coming into it after three weeks of no rugby, apart from the training rout against Samoa ‘C’ in New Plymouth, was always going to be the toughest element of the campaign, and so it proved with the All Blacks looking decidedly off the pace for the first 50 minutes.

But they rose to the occasion, dug deep and turned in a stunning 25 minutes, putting on 21 unanswered points, and essentially putting the Bledisloe Cup in the cupboard for another year. Almost.

With around 5 minutes left, and with an 11-point lead the Wallabies were staring down the barrell of a two-try deficit. They had to cross the All Black line twice to win. At that stage of the test it looked impossible, due to the fact that the All Blacks had been dominating the breakdown so strongly for the previous 25 minutes. But that didn’t daunt the Australians who swept down the left with a fantastic piece of interplay between Tuquiri, Giteau, Cross and Mortlock. The ensuing rucks saw a brave challenge thwarted by strong Black defence again and the New Zealanders won a defensive 5m scrum. With front-row replacements on, and Brad Thorne also subbed, the Black scrum machine faltered. Afoa’s tight-head side was wheeled backwards and Kaplan ruled a turnover. The Wallabies then scored through Ryan Cross to bring them within 4 points.

The remaining 3 and a half minutes of the test were a heart-stopping blur, as the Wallabies, who had looked extremely dangerous running the ball all game, carried it up-field 60-70 metres with some at times brilliant inter-plays. The All Blacks finally got their hands on it with yet another breakdown turnover, and Weepu cleared the ball out of the ground to set the seal on it.

The first half belonged to the home team, who enjoyed more or less all of the possession, and despite the All Blacks drawing first blood with a nice try to Mils Muliaina in the right-hand corner. It came from a rare All Black attack through a Jimmy Cowan burst up the middle, and a ruck centre field, followed by quick hands feeding the ball out far enough to outflank the Wallaby defence and cash in on the two-man overlap.

For the rest of the half the All Blacks were mainly defending. Clever Australian defence read all their attacking plays and shut them down. Conversely the All Blacks policy of standing back and watching the Wallabies run the ball at them allowed quick metres to be made, and once it was on a roll any structure in the Black defence was shredded, making it easy for the team in Gold to run the game.

Nevertheless the All Blacks scrambled just enough, and always just in time to keep them out, and it wasn’t until a defensive blunder occurred that they added to their lone penalty. Opting to go to the air for once, Giteau, who had until then been having a bit of a ‘mare with the boot, cross-kicked out to the right touchline where Hynes jumped and in-passed in the air to fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper. The All Blacks had he and another Wallaby player covered, but Muliaina and Kahui collided and let Ashley-Cooper slip past for an easy try. It should be noted that All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu also took out Peter Hynes whilst he was in the air, so if the try hadn’t been scored, it would have been a penalty.

At half-time the score was 10-7 to the Wallabies.

The second half started where the first ended – with the Wallabies in control of possession, and seemingly able to run right through the All Blacks defence at times.

Aussie lock James Horwill was on the end of another of these forays to take the scoreline out to 17-7 early in the second 40 after some good work by Giteau and No.8 Richard Brown.

Then the All Blacks woke up, looked at the time, and decided to go to work.

On attack at about the halfway line the All Blacks spun the ball left, found Conrad Smith who straightened in that wonderful way that he does, stepped inside Cross and made the midfield break. As the defence reacted and chased he looked left, saw the largest winger he’d ever seen, in the form of Tony Woodcock and with a lovely flick of the wrists delivered a pin-point pass right to hand. The loose-head prop, who seems to have a handy habit of scoring tries against Australia, thundered down the touchline all the way from the 22m mark to go over for a fine winger’s try. The Australian props would have noted that there was nothing in the least “mythical” about it.

Carter nailed the conversion from the touchline, like threading a needle from 40 metres.

Play continued to swing the All Blacks way as they intensified their efforts in defence, and more particularly at the breakdown, where they started winning turnover ball.

So’oialo then popped up in about the 60th minute, putting in a telling burst over halfway and sewing disarray into the normally organised Australian defence. He then fed Sivivatu, who continued the success before being lowered, however he spotted Weepu looming up, popped the pass and the half-back went over to score a nice try. Carter converted again.

Another All Black period of pressure ensued, building to Carter receiving the ball 10m out from the line. Jinking and swerving he wrong-footed Ryan Cross who barely laid a hand on him, fended off another defender and slipped right through the defensive line to dot down under the sticks. The conversion brought the searing All Black scoring burst to an end with the scoreline standing at a crowd-silencing 28-17 with 10 or so minutes left.

The Wallabies threw the kitchen sink into it, again making ground easily with some lovely Giteau interplays down the left, and ending with the Cross try described earlier, and bringing the test into that heart-testing last 3 minutes with 4 points between the teams.

This test was definitely one for the All Black fans, players and coaches to savour. It brought the Bledisloe Cup back home, won the Tri-Nations, proved that Graham Henry, Wayne Smith, and Steve Hansen are still fantastic coaches, and vindicated their re-selection by the NZRU.

Not a bad little night’s work all-in-all.

We now have the end-of-year rugby to look forward to, which from a New Zealand perspective can now be looked at in a positive light, as an opportunity to move the squad, which is very much still in a re-building phase, forward.

Well done to the All Blacks, and to all the coaching staff!

Last, and not least, all the very best to Greg Sommerville who played his last test for the All Blacks last night. His super performance underlined what a difficult job his replacement will have in stepping up.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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