16 Jul

Singing in the rain
by Rick Boyd
16 Jul 2002

First match of the 2002 Tri-Nations and what do we have? A wet, woeful win to the All Blacks, but we’re desperate so any win over Australia is seven types of wonderful.

We have too many similarities to the last couple of years – basic errors (if our lineout was a horse, we’d shoot it), aimless attack, some pretty average players. Two mediocre teams battling to make the least number of unforced errors.

But we have a few differences as well. A bit of luck New Zealand’s way for a change, although in those last few minutes the old ticker got a severe workout as prospects of a last-minute Aussie try raised their ugly heads and other last-gasp Wallaby win loomed ominously like the mother-in-law with suitcases in hand.

In Richard McCaw we have a genuine openside flanker who forced the turnover at vital times. We won’t be hearing how marvellous George Smith is after this game. In contrast to his battles with Taine Randell last year, Smith was largely invisible.

And we have a bit of attitude. The All Blacks, to their credit, were consistent throughout the game, defended tenaciously and didn’t panic under pressure. And that’s important. I said last year that Mitchell was the man for this job because he had the ability to get his players thinking like a team, to develop unity and attitude. I’d say he’s on track. It’s up to the players now to start using that to develop confidence.

We have a beginning, possibly.

The Wallabies were again exposed as very average “world” champions. Their forwards were quiet, except in the lineouts where the All Blacks obligingly self-destructed yet again. Their backs, with a centre at inside centre, a fullback at centre and a centre on the wing, looked relatively pedestrian. They made a couple of breaks, but nothing the defence couldn’t handle. Larkham had a nice short-kicking game and Latham always worries with the ball in hand but considering they received an avalanche of possession from the All Blacks’ kicking game plan, the Wallabies did very little constructive with it. The fact is that Australia have now lost to all the other top five rugby nations in the last year. Some champions.

The All Blacks’ back line was nothing to write home about either. In the later stages Mauger looked like he was going to slip the Aussie defence at any moment, but the moment passed. His kicking options were a plus though. Robertson only came to prominence with a dodgy yellow card from strictly average ref Kaplan, and the back three were lucky to be rated just steady.

And let’s have a look at some of the more glaring mistakes:

- in the 31st minute a try is right on the cards but Sommerville can’t wait for Marshall to join him on a rush for the line from the base of the ruck, so he goes in first and earns a penalty for running interference. The best chance of the game so far goes begging.

- in the 46th minute a Merhts kick and Howlett chase get us a lineout close to the Wallaby goal line. The ball is won and a maul dvelops, driving for the line but somehow the balls pops out the side. Luckily the ref penalises Australia and at least we get three points but it could have been seven.

- in the 64th minute the All Blacks have an attacking scrum on the Wallaby 22, but the ball is knocked on in an ensuing tackle. Another chance lost.

– in the 67th minute was have a prime attacking lineout right on the Wallaby goal line but Hammet buggers around so long the ref gives a free kick to the Wallabies. Unbelievable!

- in the 71st minute the All Blacks find themslves with a 3 man overlap, a certain try looks on, by village idiot Hammet passes behind the nearest back and the ball goes to ground. Have him tarred and feathered, I say.

- in the 73rd minute we have a good chance to break the shackles of late Australian attacking pressure, but Mauger’s kick is charged down and the pressure is doubled. Like we needed that!

- in the 76th minute Mehrtens drops the ball in defence on our goal line from a scrum. Can it get any worse?

But regardless of all that the game was won on penalties, 4 to Mehrtens, 2 to Burke. A bit of a lottery, and a draw wouldn’t have been an unfair result, but the All Black forwards did start to look like they meant business in the final stages and Mehrtens’ kicking game was fairly impressive, so nobody should complain too much.

And we shouldn’t have our expectations too high either. Look at the team – this is a team that can aspire to being a good team, rather than a team of good players. The props and locks aren’t a problem, and we have depth there too. Hooker needs to be looked at. We have a very good openside flanker but the other two loosies are workmen at best. I still think Kellaher has the makings of a great halfback but maybe he has to wait one more season while Marshall does his curtian call. Mehrtens is God on his day, but he does have off days. Mauger is another star in the making but centre remains the single largest problem position since Bunce vacated the number 13 jumper. Our electric back three have been replaced by a steady but not very threatening trio. All in all, we’re great in two or three positions, good in maybe five or six positions and ordinary in the rest. We can expect wins, but hard fought wins. Our biggest advantage is that the other sides that make up the Big Five aren’t in any better position.

But enough of my half a cent’s worth. Let’s take a look at the modest, humble press over here in the not-so-Lucky Country.

Shameless Wallaby cheerleader Greg Growden was almost subdued in his Sydney Morning Herald report, although naturally the game was a “dim, grim tryless victory”.

I’d like to know how this game differed from last year’s Tri-nations opener, where New Zealand defeated South Africa 12-3 in a remarkably similar game. Strangely, Growders said of that game “In one of the worst, mistake-ridden Tri Nations matches ever played, a B-grade All Black outfit somehow overhauled a C-grade Springbok line-up.” But I’m forgetting myself. The greatest Wallaby team of all time could not be described a C-grade outfit, even if they lose to the B-grade All Blacks.

But then Growders has never had a very firm grip on reality. “…considering how horrible the surface was, the limited number of errors was a credit to both teams”, he reckoned. That was a limited number or errors? I’d hate to see his idea of a high error count. And of course he couldn’t help pointing out that Mehrtens’ four out of four kicks were from easier positions than Burke’s two out of four.

And he felt obliged to finish off with an opinion that the Wallabies were “…on top of the All Blacks in the lineout, snaring five of the opposition throws before the break, and seven overall.” Yep, it takes some skill to snare lineout balls when they’re thrown right to you. Well spotted Greg.

Old Thunderguts, John Connolly, went for the “The All Blacks did not win last night’s cold war in Christchurch – Australia lost it” line. How this was managed when the All Blacks made more mistakes than the Wallabies is not immediately obvious.

The rest were almost objective. What a change from last season’s vainglorious opera of smarmy flattery to a Wallaby team that was no more talented than this one, just a hell of a lot luckier.

Next we face the Japies in Wellington. Let’s see if this All Black team has continuity of attitude. We won’t be counting our chickens before they hatch, in fact, I’m not even sure they’re chicken eggs or goose eggs at this stage. But if prayers count for anything — please St Colin, patron saint of rugby, have a word to be Big Ref in the Sky and keep the ball bouncing our way for a while.

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