By JIM KAYES in Dublin, Fairfax Media
Monday, 17 November 2008
The Grand Slam is there of the taking. Having thumped Scotland and outclassed Ireland 22-3 at Croke Park, the All Blacks have nothing to fear from England and Wales provided they play to their potential.
Once again during the weekend the exaggerated praise that dominates the game in Europe – and England in particular – was exposed as groundless. England were well beaten 28-14 by Australia at Twickenham and face the Springboks this weekend.
England will be bruised, battered and probably beaten again by the time the All Blacks get to London in a week. The Springboks have been ordinary to date but that didn't stop them beating Wales last week (who struggled to beat Canada on Saturday) and then adding the scalp of Scotland, 14-10, yesterday.
Scotland should have won but, as is typical in Britain and Ireland, they lacked the nerve, vision, skill and speed of mind to take control of the game at crucial times.
Ireland didn't even get that chance against an All Blacks side that was far form its best in Dublin, with too many penalties and turnovers hampering their attempts to bring flow and rhythm to their attack. But they were still far superior to an Irish side still searching for their first win against New Zealand. They were outscored three tries to none yesterday and could have lost by even more as they failed by some distance to match their own hype.
Ireland relied heavily on the vocal crowd and more indifferent refereeing, this time from South Africa's Mark Lawrence and his touch judges, but it was never going to be enough. The All Blacks dominated possession and territory in both half but were thwarted by their own mistakes and an odd a reluctance to completely open the throttle.
There was also a poor call by South African' touch judge Cobus Wessels for a high tackle by wing Sitiveni Sivivatu which robbed the All Blacks of an attacking scrum late in the first half.
Video referee Johan Meuwesen got it right though when he ruled a penalty try on the halftime after Tommy Bowe had knocked the ball out in goal.
That was illegal and it prevented Richie McCaw from scoring – hence the penalty try; and it was deliberate, so the yellow card was fair. So too was the sinbinning of All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock for punching, but how the three officials missed Alan Quinlan stomping on Rodney So'oialo was amazing.
The All Blacks, as good teams should do, rose above the referee and their own mistakes to lead 10-3 at halftime, then took the game away from Ireland in the second half. They scored twice, through second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu and lock Brad Thorn, and might have scored twice more had a pass to Sivivatu not been forward and had Ali Williams visibly grounded the ball. As they did against Scotland last week and the Wallabies in Hong Kong the All Blacks kept Ireland pointless in the second half.
While the players and coaches were frustrated with large parts of their play, the defence and determination had Thorn suggesting this was a rather special All Blacks team.
"I have been in a lot of teams and there's some real character in this team," the Crusader and Australian league legend said.
It reminded him of the All Blacks under Sean Fitzpatrick. "They used to win ugly or they would be three points down and get the try. It's been a while since I've seen that and this year it's really come out."
While coach Graham Henry was happy with the result, he was frustrated at the errors and penalties.
"We should get better, we should keep moving up the graph," Henry said. "We should play better but whether Wales allow us to, we will have to wait and see."
On the evidence of the past two weeks, Henry has little cause to fret.