18 Nov

Post-mortem: All Blacks v Australia RWC Semi Final
by Tracey Nelson
18 Nov 2003

So what went so horribly wrong on Saturday night, when a team stacked full of so many talented players apparently choked in the face of an extremely passionate and ferocious Australian team?

It was a combination of several things. Not withstanding the onslaught from the Wallabies, it was more a mixture of being very static on attack and not establishing any rhythm when it came to executing and timing our passes (and lineout!) than actually choking.

Contrary to what it may have appeared to be on first and even second viewing of the game, the All Blacks did have a reasonable amount of possession, but it was what we did with it that was the problem.

In the forwards, our ball carriers were standing too flat when receiving the ball and were essentially static against a very fast advancing Australian defensive line. During the first half we were also guilty of not committing enough players to the breakdown, which allowed Australia to clear their ball quickly, while in comparison they did a very good job at slowing down our ball.

Our backline was also standing up too flat and trying to spread the ball wide from first phase ball, which allowed Australia to drift on defence and shut us down. For the life of me I cannot understand why we never tried putting a chip kick just over them and put chasers through after it, as there was an acre of space behind that could have been opened up. Continual lateral running while trying to shift the ball without using players coming back effectively on the cut just made life too easy for the Australian defensive line.

Defensively we were probably guilty of being too passive, instead of playing offensive defence. We also had problems with players coming up too fast out of the line, slipping off tackles and creating holes.

One thing that mystifies me though is the criticism of MacDonald at centre, where he has been accused of being weak on defence and allowing Australia to run through gaps. I found no evidence of this when I went through the tape. The Wallabies were actually running at Spencer and taking the gap that he left when he turned out instead of staying in on defence, a problem he has had from time to time this year and one that was exploited by Wales in pool play. At no time did I see MacDonald creating gaps for the opposition attack, and he made all his crucial tackles.

Penalties cost us dearly – we gave away 13 which is around 5 more than we have averaged in each game of the World Cup up until the semifinal. There were too many mistakes made within kicking distance for Australia on Saturday night, and while Flately kicked their goals we were once again left to rue the fact that we did not have a world class goal kicker in our fifteen.

Another criticism has been an apparent lack of a Plan B when our backs were against the wall – there was definitely a change in our commitment at the breakdown in the second half, with more players committing and better offensive defence. But handling errors and turnovers started to plague us along with the penalties we were conceding, while our backline continued to be impotent on attack.

We also struggled with lack of leadership and experience – once Marshall left the field injured it appeared that Thorne had no other deputies on the field. It is important to have leadership in the backline to give commentary to the forwards, particularly in a game like this one. Our lack of experience and the relative youth of the team on the field was a definite problem and one that was always going to be there for us when we lost Umaga to injury early in the tournament.

John Mitchell said at the press conference after the game:
‘We have a particular framework that we totally believe in that has worked well for us in 2003, and we just could not establish it tonight’.

I believe that statement is actually correct to a large degree, and that Australia denied us the chance to do so for large parts of the match by targeting some correctly perceived weaknesses in our game. But there were also moments where we had the chance to establish that gameplan and it was simple things like poor throws to the lineout, missed kicks at goal, pushing a pass that didn’t need to be made, turning over possession, losing composure when on defence to concede a penalty, and not having a fall-back plan that ultimately cost us.

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