The Fumbling Houdinis
by Paul Waite
2 Dec 2001
It was one of the greatest escapes ever by the Men In Black. It is a good bet that they’ll never put in a performance as bad as that, and still win.
The backs played like they had all taken double the recommended dose of the legendary “clumsy” pills. The effects seemed pretty widespread, with Blair and Mehrtens dropping easy catches under little pressure, and Robinson and Howlett having a game they’d prefer to forget, both of them costing their side unnecessary tries by some silly-bollocks in their own in-goal.
For his part Tana Umaga looks like the proverbial square peg trying to jam itself into the equally proverbial round hole. The worked moves in midfield, presumably being developed by Robbie Deans, have all the freshness and charm of a two week old piece of cod.
The players weren’t the only people having an off day. Referee Scott Young put in a display which, in the kindest terms might be described as “inconsistent”, but which could well be entered for the “Refereeing Bollocks 2001 Award”. The nadir of his performance was when he was heard to shout “it’s a ruck”, when all the while the Argentine halfback Pichot had his hands on the ball.
However the factor which might well lose Scott the Award was that he didn’t really affect the outcome. This was entirely dictated by the performance of the All Blacks, one moment playing around like a bunch of circus clowns in the in-goal, and the next like professional rugby players winning a game with a lovely attacking move in the final minute.
As a team, the All Blacks have probably learned plenty on this tour about how they don’t have the ability to confront the opposition as a set of units. Instead they tend to fragment into individuals, especially as the pressure comes on.
Mitchell has his work cut out now. There is not as much time to prepare for RWC 2003 as everyone supposes, since the 2003 season itself will necessarily be the usual jousting between teams looking toward the “real” event coming up. Just look at how the French treated their tour downunder before the 1999 RWC, and how they went on to beat us at Twickenham later on.
That leaves next season for him to put all his personnel in place and, more importantly, to weld them into the best team that he can.
Leaving aside the difficult problem of getting the players to gel as a team and units within the team, the tour has been a real success with bringing forth new talents to the international stage.
Chief of these has been Canterbury opensider Richie McCaw. Throughout the tour, and especially in the tests against Ireland and Argentina, he has been absolutely outstanding. Not only does he get around the park as well, if not better, than any other openside in New Zealand, he seems to have that priceless vision which makes him doubly effective. New Zealand hasn’t had a No.7 of this quality emerge since 1995 when Josh Kronfeld made the jersey his own.
Looking around the backs, we come to that oft-troubled area of the All Blacks since the loss of the famous Bunce/Little combination – the midfield. Aaron Mauger looks to be a real find at second five-eighth, and Umaga is his usual self at centre, but something isn’t gelling there. Without any kind of insider info, there’s no chance of knowing what it is, but although combinations don’t come easily, this one looks like it has some basic problems.
Another speculation is that Robbie Deans still has to really settle on what he wants his backs to do and how he wants them to develop their game. The flat backline moves reminiscent of Australian rugby under Bob Dwyer look a bit ugly and predictable enough for Argentina to read them with no problems and knock us over, so it may be a case of back to the drawing board.
Up front the advent of David Hewett, the Canterbury loosehead prop, was good to see. Although, on form, Carl Hoeft is still thought to be the best Hewett will push him hard if the All Blacks continue to address the basics of tight forward play. At age 30, Hewett is in his prime and may well come through to be our first choice.
Congratulations to the All Blacks and John Mitchell for grinding out an unbeaten tour, albeit only just, and hopefully they can now all enjoy a bit of well-deserved R&R over the summer.by