15 Jun

All Blacks Quell The Poms
by Paul Waite
15 Jun 2008

smith_scoreEngland are the second Northern Hemisphere team in as many weeks, who have breezed into the country proclaiming how vulnerable they thought the All Blacks might be, having stolen yet another crop of top players off them last year, and how good their chances were of beating them. They were yet another team to come up short.

However if you listen to the players, rather than the managers, coaches or even worse, the PR men, then you hear how difficult it is to come to New Zealand and win. Clive Woodward did it in 2003, but he had a bloody good team led by the legendary Martin Johnson in its prime, and which went on to deservedly take the World Cup that same year.

There is nowhere to hide, and all of the PR hype of the previous week means nothing when you run onto that field. The All Blacks played with hunger, passion and verve at Eden park last night, and England simply couldn’t stay with the pace or intensity.

There was no facet of the game that the All Blacks did not dominate, save for the lineout. In particular both the scrum and the breakdown were fascinating contests. In the first quarter of the test, the English outplayed the All Blacks at the breakdown. Their cheating methods of diving in and sealing off and coming in blatantly from the side were not policed by Welsh referee Nigel Owens, and since they play like that normally up North, they were able to hit the ground running, so to speak. The All Blacks, coming from the more strict Super 14 rulings at the breakdown, took a while to adapt, but once they did, the situation was dramatically reversed, and it was England who lost the breakdown battle, even to the tune of having a player sin-binned (Sheridan) for nefarious activities at the tackle, driven by desperation no doubt.

Speaking of which, in the scrum poor old Andy Sheridan, the one-man wrecking machine that the Northern Hemisphere scribes love to write about as if he is the Incredible Hulk and Superman rolled into one, had yet another dismal outing against the men in black.

Last time it was the redoubtable Carl Hayman who was his nemesis, this time it was Greg Sommerville who saw him off. In fairness Sheridan held up pretty well in general, however he failed to dominate, got folded up once, and popped once – not the signs of a good propping performance you have to admit. Add to that his sin-binning, and having to leave the field bloodied and it wasn’t a good day at the office for him. On the other side Neemia Tialata had a mixed performance. He continually put his hand on the deck to brace himself – something he needs to stop doing or else he will get penalised – and at times seemed to collapse too easily. It’s hard to work out the scrum ‘politics’ sometimes, so that stuff is difficult to read, but at other times he ‘did a Woodcock’ and bore in on his opposite to such an extent it just had to hurt. Overall the All Blacks had the better of the scumming exchanges, until later in the second half when substitutions change everything. I have the feeling that the replacement of Brad Thorn took a lot of grunt from the scum for example, and Hore seemed to hold the front row together better than Mealamu did. Even so the English didn’t dominate.

The line-out was a different story. The All Blacks did eventually get some kind of rhythm going there, but were hampered by some very poor throwing, and the fact the English were allowed to close the gap much too soon by Owens. Later on in the Press Conference, Hansen admitted that line-outs had not really been focussed on during the week, so at a guess they will be next.

In the backs there were a lot of things to celebrate if you were supporting black.

First of all Dan Carter is returning to that zesty, creative form backed with a steely defence that we saw from him in 2005 against the Lions. He basically ran the test, and the English had no answer, least of all in the form of good ol’ Charlie Farley Hodgson. Out wider the midfield combination of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith continues to develop apace. Smith is looking sharper with each game, and Nonu is belying his critics by remaining solid on defence, incisive on attack and delivering some beautiful passes out to the wing, one of which brought a try to Siviatu.

Finally, this was a game which Tuitavake managed to get involved in. After the freeze-a-thon at the Caketin, where he hardly touched the ball, he obviously thought he’d introduce himself early on to the English backs, and did so with a thunderous tackle on Strettle as England tried to run the ball. The tackle put the hallmark on the All Blacks defence throughout the test. There were a number of heavy hits, and every one was felt and counted. It was a weary and bruised group of English players which trudged off at the end, knowing that they’d been both battered and beaten.

A brief summary of how the test ebbed and flowed would split it into three parts. The first 20 minutes England shaded play, by dint of dominating the breakdown and contact areas. The middle 40 minutes were totally owned by the All Blacks who sorted out the breakdown issue, and constructed some very nice tries, two in each half. The first was a lovely chip though the defensive line inside the English 22m by Carter which Smith read perfectly to beat the defence to gather a lovely bounce and score. The second came from a worked move where Sivivatu carved up the English before passing to Carter on the cut who dotted down under the sticks. Just before halftime, the All Blacks should have had a third, but a fortuitous intercept gave England Topsy Ojo a try against the run of play.

The second half carried on the way the first left off, and Nonu slipped a powder-puff Hodgson tackle to break through up the middle. He then showed good vision to find support out wide, and threw a beautiful long pass out to Mils Muliaina who slid over for the try. The last one went to Sivivatu after some clever interplay from Carter and Nonu.

After that the test was essentially dead and buried, with only pride on the line. The All Blacks made a lot fo key substitutions which, to be perfectly honest, wreaked havoc. Taking off Thorn and bringing on young Boric at lock was good, and although the scrum was noticeably de-powered, he played well in his debut test appearance. However when Lauaki replaced Kaino, and So’oialo went to No.8 it all went pear-shaped. Lauaki is a behemoth of a man, but simply doesn’t have the basics of test rugby under control. He runs at defences too upright, as he always has, and this is meat and drink to a test defence. Added to that his hands are well below the standard required, and his technique going into contact is very poor. All this resulted in no ground being gained by his so-called ball-carrying forte, and a turnover to the English just about every time he got tackled. Poor. The selectors would be best dropping Lauaki and calling up Keiran Read.

When Carter went off to be replaced by Donald, we lost our play-maker. Donald’s appearance was useful in getting him up to speed in the longer term, but of course for this test that and all the other replacements opened the door for an England burning with the understandable desire to garner whatever vestiges of pride they could from the game. So the final 20 minutes were a messy affair where neither team really got much going, but where, by keeping the All Blacks from scoring further tries, the English could claim some kind of improvement occurred. That and the fact that Topsy Ojo ran in another against-play try after a speculative kick was chased and Sivivatu was too slow in realising what to do about it.

In summary the English challenge foundered on the rocks of a hard and hungry All Blacks team, and they were well beaten on the night.

We look forward to seeing how the next test goes down in Christchurch.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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