by Paul Waite
18 Jun 2006
Every season the All Black coach has the unenviable task of curing the players of all the bad habits that the ‘Super’ season has infected them with. This irritating condition is called ‘Super Syndrome’, and is diagnosed by telltale symptoms such as forwards shirking the hard yards in favour of poncing about in the backline, and the ball being spun wide far too early spawning a seemingly never-ending sequence of pointless rucks.
Unfortunately, with the Super-14, being a longer event than the Super-12 ever was, we seem to have a more infectious strain of the virus on our hands.
The first test was the worst, with players strung out across the field, backs and forwards inter-mixed, where they got skittled easily by the Irish and made heavy weather of the win.
At Eden Park we seemed to have blown out the cobwebs, and for a good 20-30 minutes we had some good, sound rugby suited to the conditions with Mauger and McAllister kicking for territory and the tight-five concentrating on dominating their opposites. With the help of a lucky break in the form of a missed knock-on by Jack near the line, we even got out to 17-0 with that approach. To some this would have seemed evidence enough that the gamplan was working, but that was obviously too simple.
After the half hour mark we were treated to some hair-brained rugby, with the backs spinning the ball across their own 5m line in the face of on-coming Irish defence, and much more. In essence the wheels came off, and the team slipped into Super Rugby Mode again.
The signs of this demise were writ large upon the wall with a freak try to the massive Irish lock O’Connell. Looking around after a tackle the lad was quite obviously gratified to discover that he had somehow acquired the legendary Cloaking Device as used to great effect by the Romulans on Star Trek, and judging by the way no-one was looking at him or tackling him, was obviously invisible. While the All Black defence was swivelling its collective head from side to side wondering where the ball had disappeared to, he simply got up and ran through to score under the sticks.
What the game needed was for someone to recognise the problem and kick the team up the arse to get it focussed on playing for territory again, but although post-match comments from Mauger indicated the problems were known at the time, Richie McCaw took a good half an hour to properly administer the remedy.
So we were treated to the sight of the All Blacks being totally out-played by the Irish and brought to the verge of losing it completely (and literally), as O’Gara repeatedly drove them back with tactical kicks, and the run of play indicated an Irish try was on the cards.
Luckily for the home team, the Irish made a few critical mistakes, and ironically O’Gara was central to two of the most telling. First of all, he made an unforced knock-on when taking a pass just in his own half. This allowed the All Blacks back on attack, and the way it happened seemed to break a kind of spell. After that McCaw had his word with the team, and some structure put back into the effort. The scrum was used to good effect, and late pressure down in the Irish 22m brought infringments from the men in green.
More good leadership from McCaw in the form of refusing to take a 3-pointer and opting instead for a scrum brought a great dive off the back from So’oialo and O’Gara’s second critical blunder as he allowed McAllister to run over the top of him to score under the posts and make the test safe.
Henry has always said that he is creating an environment where the All Blacks take responsibility for what happens on the paddock, as opposed to the control-freak approach of drilling a single gameplan into them. I think we saw a bit of that in this test, and the new All Black skipper had his first taste of what that means. Ok, they got it badly wrong for about half the test, but changes were made, and hopefully lessons learned.
This team was also yet another a new combination. Out in midfield Laulala had a very hard debut, and spent a lot of time looking like a scared kid. The nerves produced some bad errors in possession, turnovers etc. but he also performed well on defence, an area Ma’a Nonu has a definite blind-spot in, and made some good bursts. On a dry track, with this test under his belt he might fare much better.
Looking at some of the other ‘new’ boys, the jury is still out on Troy Flavell. In what he was called on to do, he did ok at lineout time, but he cost us dearly with two infringements in particular, and this is an Achilles heel of old.
On the blindside flank, Kaino was simply not effective enough in his role in this outing, and also suspect on defence with some poor tackling technique in evidence. When Newby came on, he looked the better option.
In the front row Clark Dermody improved as the test went on, and capped the debut with a great try.
In the backs, Byron Kelleher was the Man of the Match, with his excellent distribution, good tactical kicking and general drive. The icing on the cake was his well-taken try.
Outside him, Luke McAllister place-kicked well, but also had a mixed one. His tactical kicking isn’t a strong suit, but with Aaron Mauger outside him that wasn’t so much of an issue. He was a bit suspect in defence once or twice, but redeemed all of that with his try which was superbly taken. He’s the obvious backup to Dan Carter, and will only get better as he plays more at this level.
So, the positives are that the test was a win for the All Blacks, and with yet another new combination giving several players their debut and others more experience playing at test level. We are only two tests into the season, and as far as blowing out the cobwebs for the 3N, I’m sure Graham Henry is pleased.
Looking across at the standard of the England team the Wallabies have been facing, it looks like the All Blacks have had the better intro so far, and it will be interesting to see how strongly the Irish can test Australia.by