12 Sep

The Winning Habit
by Paul Waite
12 Sep 2010

The first opponent that the All Blacks had to subdue was themselves, and their own worst enemy put up a great fight for 55 minutes whilst the Wallabies ran rampant. Once that was out of the way we had 25 minutes of both teams playing rugby, and the All Blacks once again emerged the winners.

This defeat must be the most gutting of all the losses the Wallabies have suffered at All Black hands this season. To give credit where credit is due they played some great rugby for those 55 minutes. As hungry as sharks, and as quick and mean as rattlesnakes, they swarmed across the field knocking All Black attacks back, and fizzing at running their own ball.

It was evident right at the outset that the Wallabies were out for blood, and were slavering to taste victory in this one.

The All Blacks by contrast looked out of sorts. They went through the motions we have already seen this season but it lacked cohesion and focus. Perhaps it was the distraction for many of them of having family and friends involved in the Christchurch earthquake, the amount of time since the previous test (3 weeks), or maybe it was just the fact that the Tri-Nations was already won; we can only speculate. Often these things work in the sub-conscious and even the players themselves don’t know.

Other factors added to the negative mix. You can’t take the likes of Dan Carter, arguably the best No. 10 in the World, out of a team and replace him with a young rookie in the form of the diminutive Aaron Cruden and expect the team will run the same. Cruden will put this test in the experience bank, but probably won’t take much pride in it. He looked pretty much as if he was floundering in the deep end of the pool, and couldn’t impose any kind of structure or pattern to the All Blacks play. Given he also had trouble with restarts, and doesn’t do the place-kicking, it wasn’t a surprise that the team looked to be on a firmer footing once Colin Slade came on. Slade is arguably less intuative and gifted at running the ball than Cruden, but the team looked the better for his more orthodox hand on the rudder.

Victor Vito, playing at number 6 also had a mixed bag of a game. He didn’t combine that well with McCaw and Read, and acted more like Rodney So’oialo did, as an individual unit. Great at running with the ball, but lacking in all other departments. He also directly cost the team a try with a mistake on defence from a scrum in the first half, leaving a lane the Wallabies could have driven a bus down to the try-line. Once Kaino came on and the All Blacks had their first-choice trio back in action we saw some awesome driving which resulted in tries, and ultimately the winning of the test.

The final problem was that the All Blacks lost Mealamu to a blown calf very early on which took away the ball-carrying options he brings to the game.

With all of the above, plus the out-of-sorts mindset we saw the All Blacks largely fumbling around for the first half, watching the Wallabies playing all the rugby. It was incredible that the scoreline was only 14-6 when they went in for a half-time rub-down, largely attributable to the execrable goal-kicking of Matt Giteau (thanks Matt).

All Black fans would have hoped that a half-time rev-up might have made a difference, but not a bit of it. Basically it remained the same for 15 minutes until the substitution of Cruden and Vito which changed the complexion of the All Blacks play markedly. With Slade providing a steadying influence from hand and boot, the team looked a lot more balanced, but it was Kaino who made the biggest difference and together the pack and loose-forwards gave the All Blacks the forward momentum they had been lacking.

One other factor may also have been a tiring Wallaby forward pack, due to their recent travel back from South Africa because in the final 25 minutes despite numerous fresh legs being substituted, the gaps started to open. The All Blacks won the second half 17-3 and scored 14 points in the last 20 minutes to crush the Wallaby heart, stamp on it, and grind the heel.

The loss must be a gut-wrencher of immense proportions to Deans’ men. Looking back on it, to a man they were slavering for the taste of victory over the All Blacks in this one, and the commitment levels were red-lined. They threw the kichen sink at it, and came away losing and that must hurt. But defeat usually makes teams grow stronger, and the Wallabies are now well positioned for next season’s lead-up to the Rugby World Cup.

For the All Blacks the hunt is still on for a Dan Carter replacement and back-up. Cruden seems to be very raw, and the more orthodox Colin Slade looked to be a better fit. Perhaps some thought will be given to starting Slade with Cruden on the bench for the next few tests. Aside from the learning curve Cruden is embarked on for running a test match, his presence currently dictates that the All Black halfback is Piri Weepu, for place-kicking duty. Having to play Weepu is an obvious selection problem, as Jimmy Cowan does offer the team more when he is on form.

This test marks the end of the Tri-Nations. The next test is the money-making junket against the Wallabies in Hong Kong (assuming ticket sales pick up) and after that the End Of Year Grand Slam Tour to the UK.

A final note. Contrary to the tongue-in-cheek title of this article, winning is not, and never has been, a "habit". Wins have to be grafted for, and the All Blacks grafted for this one. Well done to them and the coaching team for winning the Tri-Nations so emphatically.

New Zealand 23 (Kieran Read, Richie McCaw tries; Piri Weepu 3 pen, 2 con)

Australia 22 (Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O’Connor tries; Matt Giteau 3 pen, Kurtley Beale pen)

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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