13 Nov

Stop the wails over Wales
by Rick Boyd
13 Nov 2003

Now that the euphoria has settled and the Welshmen have disposed of all the tissues (over a LOSING performance — interesting mind set, but there’s a message in there somewhere…) let’s take a look at the All Blacks-Wales game n the cold, hard light of day.

Firstly, let’s lay to rest the predictable “if that’s all you can do against Wales, South Africa will murder you” comments. When has that ever made sense? Who won the 1991 world cup? The team that squeaked home in a trouser-filling scare against the Paddies in Dublin. Who won the 1995 world cup? The team that couldn’t win a test before or after. Who won a certain 1999 semi-final? The team that was dumped by 50 points by the same opponent earlier in the year. Rugby doesn’t work like an equation. There are too many variables. Nothing has changed for the South Africa-New Zealand quarter final. New Zealand aren’t a shoe-in because they put 50 points on the Bokke in the first tri nations game. South Africa aren’t a shoe-in because the All Blacks went astray against the Taffs. It’s a one-off, knock out game. New Zealand have the backs to win it but they need more cohesion up front and less errors all round.

So what did happen v Wales? John Eales would have us believe that New Zealand’s soft underbelly has been exposed. I rather think John Eales’soft head has been exposed.

Item 1. The All Blacks are inconsistent. They have been for years. Strangely, professional, full-time athletes seem to be less reliable and more error-prone than their part-time, amateur predecessors. Whatever the reason, take nothing for granted. This world cup has been wide open from the start. If there’s a good side to this, it was that most of the mistakes in the Welsh game came from pushing the running game too hard, rather than simple unforced errors.

Item 2. Nobody expected Wales to win this game, least of all Wales themselves. How hard is to to motivate a team to display an iron-willed killer instinct when the result is a gimme? Buck Shelford’s team might have done it, Ruben Thorne’s team have no chance. Combine that with a Welsh team totally without pressure — they had nothing to lose and could throw themselves into the game with wild abdondon, completely free of any expectation. Will they play like that against England next week? You’d be a brave man to put money on that.

Item 3. What were the All Blacks looking for from this game? Judging by the style from the opening whistle, Mitchell sent them into this game to play a mirror image of their last two Tri-Nations games. There they prepared themselves for pressure playing a tight, kicking game. Against Wales it seems to me they were pressuring themselves for a throw-caution-to-the-winds running game. Balls run out from their own 22. Pushing every pass. Even the forwards running like three-quarters. Does anyone think this happened by accident? They played one-dimensional, froth and bubble to see where it would take them.

Item 4. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The wider you open up your game, the bigger holes you leave. If the All Blacks defence looked like shit, which it did, because that’s what it was, it wasn’t only because of poor tackling. They took chances, they extended themselves, they were prepared to concede points in their attempt to maximise scoring opportunities. They will probably be disppointed they didn’t score more, given the kind of game they were trying to play. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that they put 50 points on Wales. As long as the points conceded stays below points scored, that has to be a positive thing.

Item 5. This is still not a settled combination. There’s Jack to come back in the forwards, and in the backs McDonald remains an imperfect choice at centre. His goal kicking was acceptable, just, his attack moderate, but his defence suspect. Do we risk bringing Umaga back in for his defence and experience? Then who takes the kicks? Carter? It’s a toughie.

Item 6. Professional rugby has meant that there is far more conformity in styles and skills throughout the major rugby nations, and the All Blacks can’t get away with playing poorly any more. Just because countries like Wales have points scored against them doesn’t mean their play is not up with the pace. As I have said until I’m sick of hearing it, modern laws promote positive use of the ball. A small dominance can lead to big numbers. When that dominance lapses momentarily, it doesn’t mean the team has gone down the gurgler. Watch the play, not the scoreline (as long as it’s a winning score of course).

Item 7. Credit where its due. New Zealand’s wobbles weren’t due only to their own errors. This was a Wales team with nothing to lose, and with enough firepower to benefit from such an attitude. Despite their average record, they’re not a bad team. I said earlier in the tournament I hope Wales would give New Zealand a bit of a test in the pool games. Good work Taffs. It probably wasn’t high on your agenda, but I think it did the All Blacks much more good than a 50-0 walkover.

Item 8. The above are some good reasons why the game went the way it did. But genuine concerns remain about this All Black team. Their complete and utter inability to fix ongoing lineout problems is a major worry. Their lack of authority in the tight must be overcome to wrap up South Africa, France and England. I think they can do it on the day. I just hope they manage to make that day one where they actually play South Africa, France or England.

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