29 Aug

Battered in Brisbane – What Now?
by Paul Waite
29 Aug 2011

After the All Blacks ‘thumped’ the Wallabies at Eden Park I said that the score flattered them, and that but for a poor start and missed kicks it would have been very tight. The test in Brisbane proves that was correct, and our foe over the ditch are our biggest threat in this coming World Cup.

This test loss has been a wake-up call for the Men In Black, of that there is no doubt. They were bested up front by a country mile in the first half and despite a second half rally failed to reverse the situation. The parallels with RWC 2007 are all too painful to draw.

As it transpired this test was a fabulous example of what the All Blacks
will face at the sharp end of the World Cup, and was exactly the kind of
test which has been their downfall in past World Cups. The way they
were shocked into mistakes by a hungry and passionate opponent that had worked them out and
then, forced into playing catch-up rugby, failed to reverse the scoreboard was a
classic and all too familiar example.

Graham Henry couldn’t have provided a better build-up for his men if he’d had Robbie Deans on the NZRU’s payroll.

In previous World Cup years the All Blacks have sailed along garnering a series of easy wins, lulling themselves into a nice warm fuzzy state of superiority, and then run aground on exactly these rocks.

But the question on our lips now is "how will the All Blacks react?".

If I was writing this in the so-called ‘amateur’ era, I would be 100% confident that the All Blacks would, as one, silently take the loss to heart, work out what went wrong and then, in the return test visit a fury of power rugby on their hapless opponents, taking it to a much higher level of clinical rugby, and emphatically cleansing themselves of the loss.

Sadly we are in the professional era, and we have no such cast iron guarantees. Some players are in exactly the same mold as those of yesteryear, an example being All Black skipper Richie McCaw. But the squad also contains a newer type of player, as concerned about the latest playing contract negotiations by their managers, as they are about the old-school All Black ethos and traditions. So as a whole the reaction of the team, although it will definitely be close to the old style, will probably not be quite the same.

That said there is undoubtedly still a lot of mileage left in All Black tradition, and we can assume that they will be hurting enough as a group to come together, sort out with the coaches what went wrong out there, and bring the memories of that loss to a possible World Cup re-match against Australia.

That’s on the plus side. On the negative side the Aussies, as if they of all teams needed any fillip for their confidence levels, will now know (or think they know) that they can best the All Black forwards and shock us into stupidity with rush-umbrella defence. That means the rematch, if it occurs, will probably turn on what happens in the first 20 minutes, where the All Black forwards must deliver a lesson in hard rugby to their opposites. Nothing else will work.

So what of the details? Unfortunately the All Blacks also had injuries in this test. The good news is that Kieran Read’s ankle knock does not seem to be serious, and that is the crucial one. Slightly less crucial, but still important is the potential loss of Adam Thomson who was our fill-in No.6 and 7. His arm/elbow injury does seem to be serious which leaves us short in the loose-forwards before the World Cup starts.

Finally I would just like to mention the Australian defensive approach in this test. In a surprise tactic Deans had them operate a system often used to great effect on us by South Africa whereby they cut down the space quickly close in (rush defence) and had the outside backs come around infield in an umbrella formation further cutting down space.

This is effective against the All Blacks because they tend to operate their ruck ball in a fairly predictable way, getting the backs moving through midfield. Pressure the first-five and cut down the space out wider, and you cause hurried plays and mistakes which we saw on Saturday in abundance.

So there are two issues for The Three Wise Men to deal with here. The first and most important is to play with more variety from the ruck. It is simplistic but true, that if the opposition is unsure of how you are going to play from there, then they will be unsure of how to defend as well. This will force them to back off, or risk coming up too quickly and creating the opportunity for a line-break.

The variations are all well documented and no big secret. The halfback probing and kicking (with support runners to pressure the kicks), and well-drilled forward drives either striaght from the ruck or one or two out. Similarly kicking from first-five and (if you have a 12 who can kick) second-five to vary the point of attack. We have become too predictable.

Of course Ted might have us running the ball predictably just to stop his opposing coaches developing counter-measures, but I have tried this as a working theory for previous World Cups and found it wanting.

Generally the All Blacks play in World Cups as they are playing in the tests leading up to it and, apart from the odd worked backline move, that’s the way it stays.

So, having had any possible remnant of over-confidence smashed out of them in the humbling loss to a better team in Brisbane, the All Blacks had better do some serious work back at the drawing board in the last two weeks before it all kicks off.

Good luck boys.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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