Saturday, June 07, 2008

Out from shadow, still in spotlight


JIM KAYES - The Dominion Post Saturday, 07 June 2008

These are peculiar times for rugby in New Zealand.

A test match will be played in Wellington tonight and attention should be focused on whether the All Blacks can keep their unbeaten record against Ireland intact.
The result holds some interest, but the match is not the focal point for most fans. Instead, debate rages over whether an All Blacks side coached by Graham Henry deserves support.
The division is part of the lingering hangover from last year's World Cup campaign, with as much dissatisfaction over the result in Cardiff as there is over what a shambles the whole year was.
The Super 14 showed with its empty stands how people were turning their backs on the national game and tonight is no different.
About 29,000 tickets to the 34,500-seat Westpac Stadium have sold and, for the first time since the All Blacks played Fiji in 2002, a Wellington test is unlikely to sell out. Against this backdrop of disinterest is alarm at the increasing tide of players leaving New Zealand for more lucrative fields and concerns with the controversial "Carter Clause".
Toss in the plummeting finances of the New Zealand Rugby Union and these are bleak days.
The path back is with the All Blacks. Defeat to Ireland would be a disaster for Henry, whose his reputation is gossamer thin. A loss would only add to the reworked version of "Bring Back Buck" that the Robbie Deans fan club persists with.
What Henry needs is for the All Blacks to regain their winning ways - and in style.
Sure, it will only enhance their reputation of being winners between World Cups, but for now that is all Henry can do.
He should get the victory, at least, tonight, but it might be tight if the weather is foul.
"Whatever it's like, we have to be smart with what we do," skipper Richie McCaw said. "If it's wet and windy we have to play the right sort of rugby. Playing at the right end of the field if it's like that is pretty critical.
"We may have to adjust things a wee bit. We've talked about that and, hopefully, if that's the case, we will go out and do that, but we still want to use the ball at the right times and hopefully our skills are good enough to do that."
This is not an Irish team to be trifled with. It has the bulk of the Heineken Cup-winning Munster pack and some experience and talent in the backs.
But even on their best days Ireland have lacked the knockout punch needed to defeat the All Blacks. This side looks no different.
If Ireland win it will be only because the All Blacks have played extremely poorly.
There is a chance that may happen, as the All Blacks have had only a week together, but there should be enough established combinations to see them home.
There is also no absence of motivation as most of these All Blacks have points to prove.
For those who were at the World Cup there are the demons of Cardiff to assuage, while others such as Nonu and Jerome Kaino have test careers to kick-start again.
Nonu has been a wrecking ball for Wellington and the Hurricanes but has failed to establish himself in the All Blacks. The decks have been cleared for him at second five-eighth.
Kaino has the strange positional switch with Rodney So'oialo and will rely heavily on the pack to give him a platform to work from, but he too needs to fire quickly.
The same applies in the front row, where Neemia Tialata comes off a poor Super 14 and John Afoa a good one, yet they share the goal of needing to establish themselves as All Blacks.
The All Blacks will also have to contend with a return to the old laws and the pedantic refereeing of England's Chris White, but they should still emerge the victors.

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