16 Sep

Beyond reasonable doubt
by Tracey Nelson
16 Sep 2009

Rugby, according to Graham Henry, is a simple game. So if that’s true, then why are the All Blacks making it so complicated?

Let’s start with the biggest bug-bear of them all. The lineouts. Our lineout woes have been going on for a few years now under this coaching regime and while they may have briefly improved last year where the All Blacks were winning around 87% of their throws, this season it has slipped to 75% . It reads worse against South Africa, where the All Blacks could only win 59% of their own throws across the three Tri-Nations tests.

Steve Hansen has blamed the current lineout problems on human error, but when you look at what those errors are the question has to be asked whether those errors could have been avoided in the first instance. Claiming that jumpers didn’t have back lifters is just "a human error" is up there with suggesting it would be human error to jump out of an aircraft without a parachute.

The technical aspects of the All Blacks’ lineout are flawed, and they are not helping themselves by making their lineouts prescriptive rather than thinking on their feet and reacting to the conditions at the time. It’s all well and good to have set moves you would like to use on given parts of the field, but if the opposition are on to you then you need to act accordingly rather than doggedly sticking to "the plan".

Test match rugby is all about pressure, so what was the thinking to give a rookie lock the job of calling the lineouts? Equally, the process of subbing him off in two of the tests and then getting the substitute player to take over the lineout calls also seemed nothing short of premeditated chaos. Hansen is quick to point out that Isaac Ross should not shoulder all the blame for the lineouts, "..there’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he’s just a kid" – so surely the buck falls back on the coaches who decided it was a good idea to laod this responsibility onto a new All Black.

There weretheludicrous claims from the All Blacks that they suspected their lineouts were being spied on while they were in South Africa, but the fact of the matter is that the All Black throws are easy to read and therefore easy for the opposition to match up against. Not to mention the All Blacks seem to like helping the Springboks out by throwing to the spot Victor Matfield is jumping in.

But if lineouts weren’t bad enough, there is the backline. A backline that has failed to produce any cohesion or strike power, and one that has continued to operate poorly even after the return of Dan Carter. Quite why the All Blacks were running moves with Donald at 1st 5 and Carter at 2nd 5 at training last week when Carter was named to start at 1st 5 we can only put down to some form of smoke and trickery in lead up to the test – and it was a gamble that ultimately backfired in Hamilton.

To see a player of the calibre of Carter throwing a pass that was easily intercepted for a try was bad enough, but that it came from an overly complicated move from one of the few of our own lineouts we actually managed to win really just summed this season up. Add the continued selecion of out-of-sorts Joe Rokocoko on the wing and the inability of most of the backs to get into position and take control of high kicks from the opposition, then you really have to start wondering what is going on in the All Black camp.

There have been plenty of noises about how the team is building this season, but even the players must be starting to switch off when the coaches look for things to build on after yet another loss. Commentsfrom Hansen such as "the positive thing about the lineout for me in that first half was that we managed to put them under a lot of pressure. The ball they won was pretty untidy too" is merely grasping at straws. Untidy it may have been yet the All Blacks never profited from it, and it was a botched All Black lineout the Boks scored their first try from. Nothing too positive in that for me, I’m afraid.

The high error rate from this side is simply not good enough. While the coaches stress that it is not a lack of confidence, the questions must now be asked why the errors continue to come. The lack of composure, inability to execute anything under pressure (and sometimes under no pressure at all), and the general poor decision making point to a distinct lack of self confidence in even the senior players in this side. Sure, there are some key All Black unavailable due to injuries but to see the likes of Muliaina, Carter and McCaw all well short of their best must surely be more than ringing the alarm bells.

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