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The All Blacks have run out of ideas

Date

Mark Reason

No longer immune to the whistle: All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

No longer immune to the whistle: All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Photo: AP

Love the rain. Give me a stick of dynamite and I would blow the roof off the Millennium Stadium. Wet weather rugby is a whole new ball game. It demands a higher skill level, a flexible tactical mind and it gives the fate of the contest to the forwards.

Suddenly these All Blacks didn't look half the team that some people had assumed they were.

Don't tell me the conditions were impossible or that they ruined the spectacle. And don't tell it to the 39,523 people, it is still hard to believe the size of the crowd, who were jammed into Wellington's Athletic Park back in 1996.

The conditions that day were far worse than they were in Sydney last weekend, because a howling wind drove the rain, but those All Blacks played the rugby of the gods.

Craig Dowd, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and the rest of that wonderful side made three unforced errors in 80 minutes.

They scored six tries, many of them sublime, in thrashing the Wallabies 43-6. Several of that Australian squad would go on to win the World Cup three years later.

Rugby is a game for all weathers. You remember the All Blacks who played at Stradey Park at the end of the `80s? The wind was so severe that when the Llanelli five-eighth tried to take a drop-out, the ball blew back over his head.

The All Blacks did not build much of a lead with the wind and the Welsh punched the air at half-time. But in the second half Wayne Shelford's men stuck the ball up the jumper and did not concede a point in an exhibition of control.

These are the standards that the current team must aspire to and, at the moment, they fall a long way short. So what went wrong on Saturday?

Where are the weaknesses that the All Blacks have to fix if they are to stay ahead of the world and not relapse at another overseas World Cup?

1. Tactics

The All Blacks seem to have stalled. The game plan that worked so well early in Steve Hansen's reign, a variation on the Crusaders game of stacking the edges with ball-playing forwards, has been worked out by the opposition. France and Argentina were the first to adapt last year and, since then, most teams have managed to contain the All Blacks with a rushing inside defence and an outside drift. Since that monumental victory in South Africa, New Zealand have played seven games and, in six of them, the average margin of victory is under four points. The trick of international rugby is staying ahead of the game, to keep moving. No wonder Hansen is desperate to get Wayne Smith on board. His legacy may well depend on it.

2. Defensive speed

What was so puzzling about the All Blacks on Saturday was the passiveness of their defence. They were more aggressive on their own line, but in most parts of the field they held back. As they had decided to kick the ball back to Australia and play off defensive turnovers, a la South Africa 2007, you might have expected more attack in the defence. But they let the Australians come on and still missed a ton of tackles, the front row being particularly culpable. Contrast with Australia. Like the Waratahs, they rush the first receiver with Michael Hooper smashing Aaron Cruden early on. Smartly in defence, the Wallabies had Matt Toomua at first receiver and brought Rob Horne in from the wing to play "12" inside Ashley-Cooper with Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau dropped deep on the flanks. Hansen's smart-alec comments about Beale playing at 10 grotesquely underestimated the flexibility of Australia's game plan.

3. Penalties

It is a worry that refs have caught up with Richie McCaw who, as in the Super 15 final, was pinged a lot on Saturday (four times). With the captain's authority diminished, the rest of the team is now exposed. Wyatt Crockett is another serial defender. Beauden Barrett was unlucky to receive a yellow card, as no ruck was formed justice was done – a few moments earlier, during a desperate passage on the New Zealand line, Fekitoa was offside, Mealamu was off his feet and Owen Franks was slowing the ball down. Astonishingly no yellow card. But bottom line, Richie needs to stop going in at the side.

4. Fullback

This is a dilemma for Hansen. He wants to play Ben Smith, who is the best fullback, and who inspired two of New Zealand's finest moments against Australia. But, Crusaders man as he is, Hansen is timid about counter-attacking from deep. And if they won't launch from their own half, then the All Blacks miss the sheer length and accuracy of Israel Dagg's kicking.

5. Five-eighth

Cruden made a try-saving tackle and put in some fine chip kicks, but he also blew an overlap on a turnover when he broke himself and made a couple of unforced errors. Dan Carter's tactical awareness and defensive shrewdness in partnership with Conrad Smith are starting to be missed.

6. Front five 

The locks are both very fine players, but they are quite similar players. The All Blacks lack an enforcer who really shifts bodies and they are physically short in the front row. They do not compare to Dowd, Fitzpatrick, Brown, Robin Brooke and Ian Jones, the class of '96.

7. Back row

Whisper it, but Jerome Kaino made two big errors on Saturday. When Sam Cane came on he won the first back row turnover penalty in the entire match for New Zealand. Is it time to shift Richie to 6?

 Stuff

39 comments so far

  • Wallabies at athletic park were a pretty good team.
    Team
    15 FB Matt Burke
    14 W Ben Tune
    13 C Joe Roff
    12 C Tim Horan
    11 W David Campese
    10 FH Scott Bowen
    9 SH Sam Payne
    1 P Richard Harry
    2 H Michael Foley
    3 P Dan Crowley
    4 L Garrick Morgan
    5 L John Eales (c)
    6 F Owen Finegan
    7 F David Wilson
    8 N8 Mike Brial
    Replacements
    16 Stephen Larkham
    17 Pat Howard
    18 George Gregan
    19 Daniel Manu
    20 Andrew Heath
    21 Marco Caputo

    Commenter
    stojo01
    Location
    Zeadney
    Date and time
    August 20, 2014, 1:23PM
    • Just goes to show how important a tier one fly half is when you get to the summit of the game. Bowen was a good performer but he wont go down in history as an Ella, carter, Wilkinson, larkham, noddy etc. that was the difference back. From memory that was our issue for a number of years when ella and noddy moved on.

      Commenter
      Tim
      Date and time
      August 20, 2014, 10:51PM
    • That no.16 outside back replacement came on in the second half and played 10 for the first time in his professional career. Helped staunch the flow. Looked promising.

      Commenter
      exTen
      Date and time
      August 21, 2014, 11:23AM
  • I think the All Blacks have come back to the pack a bit, but I wouldn't write them off just yet. They have a ridiculously high 94 win % over the last three years, including some fairly heroic wins in the last 12 months that should really have been losses...it's as if winning the RWC in such a titanic struggle finally gave them the belief that they are never beaten. I suspect they'll play far better on Saturday in Auckland, but do believe they will have a couple of losses this year. I'd go further and say they need a couple of losses or else they won't make the refinements required to do well at the next RWC.

    Commenter
    Olddantucker
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 20, 2014, 3:19PM
    • Are we signalling the death knell for a team that hasn't lost in 19 matches? Getting a bit ahead of ourselves aren't we?

      Commenter
      Vitas
      Date and time
      August 20, 2014, 3:21PM
      • I must have watched a different match on Saturday night. I saw a borefest. Two teams jockying around goal kicking distance waiting for penalty shots. Did no one else hear the referee say he wasn't going to award anymore penalties in the closing stages? Yet still no tries eventuated. If I want to watch a game with no tries and only goals, I'd watch AFL

        Commenter
        David
        Location
        The Bay
        Date and time
        August 20, 2014, 3:23PM
        • Nice mid week beat up but we know who will be asking the questions on Saturday and it won't be the Wallabies,a good side but not a great side.

          Commenter
          Fergus
          Date and time
          August 20, 2014, 3:43PM
          • Good grief - now we have no chance...

            Commenter
            Harold
            Date and time
            August 20, 2014, 5:57PM
            • Guys a little slip on Saturday and now this AB side is not a good side running out of ideas I don't think so. They will be back this Saturday I'm sure of it, yes they must worry a little the last few tests was not their best but they still won. You know you have a great team when you still win matches even when you don't play well. This coming from a big Saffa supporter I just have to much respect for the AB and yes it will be nice if the Rugby power shifts a little to RSA / AUS but I still think the AB is and will always be the team to beat.
              Well done AUS you guys played well and did us a favour by holding the AB to a draw.

              Commenter
              Riek Saffa
              Date and time
              August 20, 2014, 5:59PM
              • So for a team so lacking in so many areas, they did pretty well to sneak a draw in Syderney

                Commenter
                ken higgs
                Location
                syderney
                Date and time
                August 20, 2014, 6:32PM

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