22 Jul

The icing on the Cake Tin
by Rick Boyd
22 Jul 2002

After a worrying start, New Zealand’s All Blacks continued their increasingly impressive improvement under John Mitchell, defeating the Bokke 41-20 in Wellington.

The qualities I suspect Mitchell is instilling into the team again came to the fore. The unity and cohesion is developing into a good, solid team attitude and what’s more, it’s consistent as well. No big lapses into complacency after a good score has accumulated. No last minute rushes from behind to catch up on earlier laziness. No twenty minutes of good rugby in an 80 minute game that can be undone by an unlucky last minute penalty. And they displayed an aggressive, uncompromising toughness that was tempered with discipline and self-control, with no sign of the passive, turn-the-other-cheek surrender of 1999.

But don’t let anyone tell you this team is at the top of its game. They still make far too many mistakes and while they are developing pleasing fluidity as their confidence grows, they have nothing like enough self-belief to maximise their opportunities.

The Springboks surprised with their willingness to attack. Full marks to coach Rudolph Straeuli for moving away from the old Springbok game plan of big hits up front and big kicks from the backs. Half back Conradie and flyhalf Pretorius both showed enterprise and skill with the ball in hand and fullback Greeffe demonstrated dangerous attacking ability, wrong footing four All Black defenders on his way to scoring the game’s first try. Some of the media have criticised the All Blacks for soft tackling in this play but I don’t see what they could have done different. With a bunch of new players in the team the Springboks were never going to be favourites but they should take heart that they have the makings of a half decent attacking team here. Bring back Paulse, and with a bit more athleticism in the forwards, we could be talking turkey.

The story of the Australia-New Zealand test in Christchurch was turnovers, with McCaw turning the tide in the loose whenever the Wallabies looked like scoring, but in this game it was his comrade Scott Robertson who did the damage. The South African defence around the fringes of rucks was negligible and Robertson made huge charges and obtained quality yardage beyond the gain line every time he touched the ball.

The Japies started with a pack of fatties and it was predictable that New Zealand would try to run them around for a big second half. But it wasn’t the fatties that brought South Africa early success, and at 10-3 the prayer beads were getting a work out. But it didn’t last long and a masterful series of forward charges set up Howlett for a try in the corner. Combine that with Mehrtens’ sublime judgement of the Wellington wind and three kicks that just about turned at right angles to slide between the posts, and New Zealand were back in the game looking as though they had never experienced a second of doubt. Then they polished off the half with a try and a penalty for a 21-13 half time lead and the writing was on the wall for the Japies.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with Australian ref Dickinson but for once most of the dodgy decisions were in our favour. One such was Hammet’s try from a set move around the front of the lineout, which video replay showed to have been thrown in illegally and collected illegally. On the other hand, it was frame-by-frame stuff and referees are not perfect, unlike we rugby columnists.

Coach Straeuli had a whinge about this in the press and about the ref calling a forward pass when flanker Joe van Niekerk was heading for the line, but he was being optimistic on the second one. The slow motion replay shows that the ball went forward significantly in relation to the ground marking, and since the ball travelled only about two metres the passer would have had to be travelling at close to the speed of sound for the forward movement to be due to inherent ball speed.

There was more enterprise in the second half and two more good tries scored, although the Boks were a bit unlucky with one of them which started when one of those hideous oval-ball bounces completely flummoxed fullback Greeffe. The Boks scored one of their own too, when susbstitute All Black centre Tana Umaga coughed up the ball in a defensive tackle. Robinson, the player he replaced, was again not immediately obvious to the untrained eye but Umaga looked decidedly rusty when he came on, with a string of errors. He started to fire up later though, so maybe he has done enough for a starting place in the absence of serious competition.

Jonah Lomu also came on later in the game, and while he had some solid charges and made ground every time with four Springbok tacklers clinging to him like playful nephews, his defensive and support work was again absent presumed missing. I’m hoping that Mitchell is saving a big role for Jonah in Sydney when he will be brought on after half time and fed a series of quick cut out passes to let him thunder down the left wing one-on-one with the defence and scoop up three quick tries to turn the Australian defeat into a hapless route. Or maybe that was just a pleasant dream I had one night.

Other fond imagining we might like to entertain is what the score might have been had the All Black mistake rate been lower. There may be a tendency to overlook these with a sizeable win of this nature, but it would have taken only a couple of reffing decisions and the odd bit of bad luck and they could have been vital. Let’s aim for constant improvement and eliminate things like these:

 the turnover that led to Greeffe’s try
 the restart kick that didn’t travel ten metres
 the lineout throw that ended up way over New Zealand’s side and was kidnapped by a charging Japie forward. OK, it may have been the wind. StillÂ…
 the loose pass from Marshall on the counter attack that was gratefully accepted by Pretorius and turned attack into defence in our own half
 the lineout throw that was knocked forward onto the South African side
 the dropped ball by Umaga in a tackle
 the maul that was pushed out over the sideline, giving SA the throw in
 another knock on in the lineout
 Umaga dropping the ball in a tackle again, leading to a try by Joubert
 the lineout throw following a penalty kick, which went way over the back of the lineout and was taken by South Africa
 the ball lost in a ruck when Ralph took it in and did not position it
 the ball lost in a ruck when Jonah took it in and displayed the retention skills of Allan Hewson.

OK, we won’t harp on about it, but let’s not pretend that we’re in a golden era when the rust has hardly been polished off the badly dented armour of 2001.

Meanwhile, over here in the land of the modest and the home of the magnanimous, the Australian media was strangely quiet. Wallaby stalker Greg Growden was not calling this game New Zealand B over South Africa C. Perhaps he’s afraid he might be writing about Australia D next Sunday. True to form, his report was mainly about what bruisers the Australian forwards are and how they won’t be taking any shit from those villainous Japie thugs, but he was unable to avoid mentioning the All Black win entirely, even if it was only to imply that this is as good as the New Zealand team is going to get.

Wallaby wing Ben Tune burst onto print with bold declarations of how unworried Australia was by either team. The subtitles here are plain. “Unworried” means “we are worried and we need to boost our guys’ confidence so they don’t start thinking negatively”. It makes a change from the usual “they must be starting as favourites” which means “we know damn well we’re favourites but we don’t want any complacency sneaking in.”

And I can see his point, undeclared though it was. The Wallabies lost a series to South Africa in last year’s tri nations and here is a young Springbok team with some good attacking backs and tough forwards, and Australia looking less than threatening — it’ll be a very interesting game in Brisbane next Saturday. Naturally I’m hoping for “a good game that is a credit to the game of rugby” — (that’s a “nil-all draw with about six injuries to each side” for those still having trouble with the sub-titles).

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