By MICHAEL DONALDSON, Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 03 August 2008
So, it takes a humiliating loss to get the All Blacks really fired up. Or maybe it was the chopping block and sharp axe being wheeled into the coaches' box. Whatever ... this was more like it; an All Blacks team playing as if very future of the country depended on victory; luckily we got it, an emphatic 39-10 at Eden Park last night.
The coaches' contrition of midweek was a clever disguise. They talked about being out-coached, out-foxed by Robbie Deans. But really, the theme of the week must have been "fire up, hit hard". In short, sport's most over-used word: passion.
The evidence was there at the start with the "Kapa O Pango" performed back on home soil for the first time since the equivalent fixture last year. The throat-slitting gesture has long since been modified but this haka is a signal the All Blacks mean business. It's their personal signature of intent and rarely do they play badly once they've performed this challenge. After all, at this level of rugby where skill levels are so even, fitness so high, the differences come in tactical shrewdness and venom.
The ramped up physicality allowed the All Blacks to force a succession of turnovers at ruck and maul that had Australia on the back foot more often than they'd been in Sydney. Harried, they made technical errors that hadn't previously been seen. One, a failed lineout throw 8m from their line, led the first of two Tony Woodcock tries.
In the vital tone-setting exchanges, the role of the returning captains, Richie McCaw and Stirling Mortlock, was going to be vital and it was apparent that McCaw's longer spell on the sidelines (he'd been out for the first three Tri Nations test while Mortlock had missed just one) resulted in a greater desire to make a mark.
Yes, Mortlock set up the Wallabies first with one of his typical you-can't-tackle-me bursts but overall McCaw was the dominant general.
There was tactical tightening too, with Daniel Carter having the obvious upper hand over Matt Giteau, continually making the right choices, if not always executing perfectly. He kicked and kicked and kicked. One out of three tended to be what you'd cruelly describe as the useless. The rest of them were sublime and it was his long-raking effort that forced Australia to concede a defensive lineout which, via a move that could have designed by the CIA, led to Woodcock's second try.
Now, normally Australian coach Robbie Deans is genius at reworking things that are going wrong. So often in his Crusaders days, his teams would transform things in the second half.
Not this time. In fact, things got worse as the normally efficient and rigorous Wallabies defence was left floundering as the All Blacks made a try out of a series of bad passes and hurried shuffling of the pill until it ended in the hands of Ma'a Nonu. How bad had the Australian defence become? Well, they fell for a Nonu dummy as the All Blacks second five scored the third try. His second for the bonus point was almost wrecked, but that's Nonu for you.
All this means breathing space for the contrite leaders. Wayne Smith admitted to being outfoxed in the backs department last week but his crew made sure there were very few errors this week, mainly by going back to an old-fashioned 10-man game, Carter mixing his kicking to apply pressure that way.
Steve Hansen, in charge of the forwards, earned his keep by reinvigorating the lineout. It's not often New Zealand's way to attack the opposition lineout but last night the All Blacks were on the offensive, forcing errors, bad decisions and general mayhem which all added to the disarray that had been the All Blacks' domain last week.
And Graham Henry. It's extreme to say that somewhere on his laptop there might have been a resignation letter but certainly his position would have become unbearably hard to defend had he overseen a third consecutive loss; something the ABs haven't suffered for a a decade.
But not only did the head coach get the tone right but as defensive coach he oversaw a much tighter effort. Generally, the breaks which had decimated the All Blacks were eliminated and the defence became a form of attack with vigorous kick-chase, Rambo-esqueaggressiveness at the breakdown and a scrambling that had the Wallabies found difficult to combat.
This win could take on huge psychological importance, not just ahead of the remaining Tri Nations games but also for the world cup.
In the Tri Nations, it keeps the All Blacks alive, so much so a win in South Africa in two weeks means it's back to square one for everybody.
But it was a win for the long-term future, too. When Deans got the Wallabies job there was plenty of talk he'd be hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy at this venue in 2011.
But to do that, for any team to do that, they'll have to start beating the All Blacks at what has become a rugby Fort Knox over the past 14 years.