By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE, RugbyHeaven
Friday, 01 August 2008
While coach Graham Henry has been changing tactics and dreaming up new ways to stop the rot of a two-match losing streak, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has offered a more simplistic theory to beating the Wallabies on Saturday night: be smart, physical and aggressive.
As the end to a dramatic week approached, one where the All Blacks coaches continue to admit that they have had to seriously review and overhaul their methods for perhaps the first time in about four years, McCaw said that ultimately it came down to the players executing the revised plans at Eden Park.
Those plans had been seriously tweaked to accommodate the ELVs and the crafty mind of the opposition coach Robbie Deans.
But McCaw didn't believe that could be achieved without a few basics being adhered to first, the sort of stuff that was absent in last week's 19-34 shocker in Sydney.
And he felt his team were up for that challenge, sensing the players were also feeling the heat - as they should.
"There has definitely been added edge I suppose. The guys have been a bit niggly at training and that always shows that there's an edge there," said McCaw."We have just got to make sure that we use that to put together a performance. We have to be smart about the way we play but also bring the physical side of things and the aggression if we are to get what we are after."
McCaw felt the benefit of his long-awaited injection into the Tri-Nations campaign wouldn't be felt is he wasn't helped by those around him. The breakdown was absolutely crucial but the loose forwards would only come into effect if there was front-foot play from the entire pack.
They needed to go up a notch or two from Sydney in that area.
Being smart has been a collective issue this week. The coaches had failed with their analysis of the ELVs after watching them played in the Super 14. They were relying on player input to make up some shortfalls.
Henry believed they had made the necessary adjustments and now it was time to find out. He was equally sure that Deans would make some adjustments as well for this intriguing rematch that will strongly define both the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup outcomes, with the All Blacks' grip on each trophy looking shaky after a sloppy campaign to date.
Henry said the hardest part of this taxing week was deciding what to do - how to react with the correct changes.
"Once you make those decisions and get them into practice it's a good feel."
He went back to the excuse that the coaches were still feeling their way after being in command for just three games under the experimental laws.
"We have analysed the (Sydney) game and spent quite a bit of time doing that as a group of coaches and as a team. We have trained to rectify those things, trained it well and hopefully it comes through in the game," said Henry."As we have said before it's a totally different game to what we have played over the years. We are bedding down the tactics. It's not until you really face the challenge and you have come up short that you really have to think deeply about what's going on there. I watch a bit of rugby, I watch a bit of rugby on video and try to analyse the game. I spend a bit of time doing that and so do the other guys (Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen). We thought that we had done that and done that pretty well. But until you get into the heat of the battle ... I guess that's the big learning experience. So it's been a huge learning experience."
The All Blacks have had to battle changing the game plan, Auckland's fickle weather and some unnecessary injuries in the leadup to this crucial match.
Of the latest injury update, Henry confirmed that Jimmy Cowan would start at halfback and that Piri Weepu would cover the bench after Andy Ellis' rib injury had failed to come right.
In the hooking department Andrew Hore had overcome his hip problem to retain the starting jersey from Keven Mealamu.
With McCaw deemed fully fit, Adam Thomson would be the loose forward cover on the bench, meaning Daniel Braid dropped out.
Of course the biggest loss was that of the experienced fullback Leon MacDonald, necessitating Mils Muliaina returning there and Richard Kahui being given a surprise role on the right wing.
The All Blacks see the kick and chase game as crucial to this match after being seriously out-played by the Wallabies in that department in Sydney.
They want extra kicking power at the back and they have deemed Kahui's apparent skills in this area as the next best alternative to MacDonald, overlooking their wings Anthony Tuitavake and Rudi Wulf.
Henry backed Kahui's limited experience as a wing to be sufficient for an assignment where he will mark the increasingly confident Lote Tuqiri.
"I talked to him before we finalised the selection about his feeling about playing on the wing because he hasn't played there for a while. He was very positive, very upbeat about the opportunity. He has the skill-set, I think he has the mentality and the composure to do a good job."
Now Henry has to hope his entire team has those key elements to match Kahui - skill, mentality and composure.
Add in McCaw's ingredients of smartness, physicality and aggressiveness and it might just be a winning recipe.
The All Blacks certainly need it to be.
NEW ZEALAND: 15 Mils Muliana, 14 Richard Kahui, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan; 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino (c), 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 John Afoa, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Anthony Tuitavake.
AUSTRALIA: 15 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Peter Hynes, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Berrick Barnes, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Phil Waugh, 5 Nathan Sharpe, 4 James Horwill, 3 Al Baxter, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Reserves: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Dan Vickerman, 19 Hugh McMeniman, 20 Sam Cordingley, 21 Ryan Cross, 22 Drew Mitchell.