By RICHARD KNOWLER, The Press
Saturday, 02 August 2008
The wild weather that has roared its way across the country may well be nature's way of reflecting the angry mood in the All Blacks camp this week. No mistake, these are testing times for our national rugby team.
Two consecutive losses have done little to quell many New Zealanders' suspicions about Graham Henry's reappointment as the All Blacks coach. Only a win in tonight's Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park will allow the New Zealand Rugby Union high priests to breathe a little easier.
Forget the babble from the rugby romantics who want to see a free-flowing game, peppered with sweeping backline movements. Henry just needs to deliver a victory against the Wallabies. We'll take it any way we can get it.
Skipper Richie McCaw said the tension among the players had reached a new level this week.
"There's definitely been an added edge, I suppose. Guys are niggly at training and stuff like that," he said."That shows there's a bit of an edge there, we just have to make sure we use that. We have to be smart about the way we play and also in the physical side of things and the aggression is what we are after."
The pressure in the All Blacks camp this week must be rising to extraordinary levels as they aim to maintain their grasp on the Bledisloe Cup and prevent an Australian win in Auckland for first time in 22 years.
This has been no ordinary week; some of the admissions from Henry and his assistants, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, have been startling.
Henry admitted they got the tactics wrong in their 19-34 loss to the Wallabies in Sydney last week, the ever-honest Smith said "I was out-coached and I will be out-coached again" and Hansen took the unusual tangent of noting the reason Australians are so good at grabbing the high ball is because most of their kids were brought up playing Aussie Rules.
Then there was the explanation that they were still grappling with the intricacies of the Experimental Law Variations.
Injuries to halfbacks Jimmy Cowan and Andy Ellis and hooker Andrew Hore disrupted preparations and earlier in the week Henry was on edge about McCaw's chances of starting.
Yesterday it was revealed Cowan would start at No.9, with the re-called Piri Weepu in the reserves, and Hore would return to rake.
The trump card is the return of the mighty McCaw, who has been declared fit after six weeks on the sideline with an ankle injury. His inspirational follow-me style and his presence will bolster his team-mates' confidence and ensure the Wallabies have plenty more to worry about at the crucial breakdown, even with dual fetchers in George Smith and Phil Waugh.
"The breakdown is vitally important and I think that is where we perhaps came second last week," McCaw said."How you get to function as a loose forward often depends on what happens in front of you. A big way of combating them is to not allow them to get a free go like that."
Henry will demand that his troops, namely first five-eighths Dan Carter, employ a more intelligent kicking game than was witnessed in Sydney, that they be more urgent in the kick-chase, their handling improves and are more ruthless in their tackles.
The selection of Richard Kahui in the unfamiliar position of wing adds another competent kicker to the backline, but it is at second-five where there are concerns.
Ma'a Nonu's handling should improve after letting him down in Sydney, but it is his kicking game and the ability to relieve some of the pressure on Carter we need to see.
The return of skipper Stirling Mortlock at centre is a massive boost for the Wallabies but it will, again, be the forward exchanges where this result will probably be determined. It will be interesting to see if the All Blacks are prepared to back their lineout more as they ratchet up their kicking game.
Last week they were reluctant to kick the ball out, offering themselves just five opportunities to compete against the throws to Wallabies locks Nathan Sharpe and James Horwill.
The 46,500-capacity ground, which will undergo major reconstruction after the test as part of the 2011 World Cup preparations, is a sell-out.
New Zealanders will hope the All Blacks do a similar demolition job on the Wallabies.