Monday, November 29, 2010

All Blacks and McCaw: The last men standing

Grand Slam 2010 has been accomplished by the grand team in the grand finale, as the travel-weary All Blacks stamped their authority with a runaway 37-25 win over Wales at the flaky turf of Millennium Stadium.

Mission possible and mission completed for the ‘All Blacks Five-O’ of coach Graham Henry, assistants Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, captain Richie McCaw and vice-captain Dan Carter.

The match was at times marred by an over-zealous Irish referee Alan Lewis, who probably instructed more scrum resets than Hulk Hogan body-slamming opponents in his entire career. The penalties were also as constant as flies buzzing around your face at summer time.

Hopefully the atrocious KPIs of the officials such as Lewis is not the dress-rehearsal for the Main Event of 2011, better known as the Rugby World Cup. Otherwise there will be serious repercussions in terms of spectators needing appointments to the audiometrists for hearing aids after putting up with ridiculous whistle-happy clowns.

Seriously though, until these men in the middle get their act together, hopefully the tournament does not turn into a farce with vital players sin-binned while others get away with blue murder.
How Welsh reserve forward Andy Powell escaped even a penalty in taking Richie McCaw out late in the game with a blatant cheapshot, is beyond me. It warranted an immediate send-off but incredibly, Wales were given the scrum feed courtesy of McCaw knocking the ball on from the ensuing impact of the malicious Powell tackle.

Without the need for racial vilification but I have no doubt that, had the tackle been carried out by any of the brown brothers from the Pacific Islands, he would’ve been given his marching orders without hesitation – absolutely. As harsh as the reality of it all, but it’s just the way it is.
Typically of McCaw’s toughness, resilience and cool’n’calm demeanour – unlike the soccer Hollywood divers – he rose and dusted himself off before giving a wink to Powell, that might have translated to, “Is that all you got, you big-for-nothing nymph wimp?”.

Despite the unbearable envy, jealousy and innuendos from all corners, McCaw continues to get on with it like the consummate professional.

The message is, you mess with Richie McCaw, you mess with the All Blacks.
Granted, there was a lack of cohesion and ill-discipline from the New Zealanders earlier in the game although it was not helped by questionable refereeing decisions or off-the-ball niggling by the Welshmen that saw even the hardest taskmasters like Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Conrad Smith venting their frustrations.

Ultimately, the beauty of experience can never be under-estimated as the likes of 2010 IRB Player of the Year nominees McCaw and Mils Muliaina, and new world record Test rugby pointscorer Daniel Carter, brought on their arsenal of skills, patience and composure to execute Plan B before seeing off their opponents with scant regard.

As Ireland had done the weekend prior, Wales were valiant and courageous. Yet they also sent out a reminder that when kicking away possession straight into the danger zone, the All Blacks will callously retaliate with an all-out assault and awesome counter-attack unmatched anywhere in world rugby. Muliaina’s try from 60 metres out was a case in point, when Carter bamboozled the defensive line before passing to his fullback cutting in on the angle, screaming past a couple of embarrassing missed tackles on his way to his 33rd Test try.

Blindside flanker and man-of-the-match Jerome Kaino had a barnstorming match, producing his trademark brutal hits and powerful running game that occasionally swayed the momentum to the All Blacks’ advantage.

Almost every time Kaino got involved, he forced crucial turnovers, if not also setting up great attacking or try-scoring opportunities. An enormous input by the massive enforcer.
Muliaina himself was not far behind, with the veteran custodian having the habit of saving his best for last. He is a class act, also heavily caught up in the battle with a busy game.

Perhaps the turning point came when Muliaina received the ball filling in at pivot, kicked through before chasing like a rabbit only for Welsh inside centre James Hook to hand the ball back on a platter when Muliaina ankle-tapped him.

From there, when the ball was spun out wide with crisp passes through quick superb hands, I had to look again and thought “hang on, this ain’t the backline!?”. The world’s best hooker Keven Mealamu stepped in as stand-off, passed it to Brad Thorn who linked with locking partner Anthony Boric like experienced midfielders, before Isaia Toeava gladly planted the ball in the corner, himself bewildered at how the ball managed to reach him with ease.

Then you have John Afoa, a heavyweight prop sprinting to the try line during the latter stages, that the likes of Carl Lewis would’ve been proud of.

The All Blacks innovation continues when forwards and backs could swap roles without exposing much chink in their armour. And thus, these are the classic examples of the one-in-all-in skill-set instilled in this magnificent rugby team.

Sonny Bill Williams had a relatively quiet game apart from another sublime offload that got the All Blacks off to a fine start. Toeava backed up in support and used his power and pace to beat would-be tacklers and offloaded to his wing partner Hosea Gear to score one of his two tries. The unbelievably strong Gear has pretty much owned the No. 11 since his recall, and rightly so.

There will be a lot of excellent players that will not make the cut when the World Cup squad is completed. A player like Luke McAlister may still be in the running as Dan Carter’s deputy, as he will not be able to win back his preferred No. 12, when you have SBW and Ma’a Nonu already arm-wrestling 24/7.

Toeava is the lucky charm because of his utility value. He could’ve been on the bench as Carter’s back-up reserve in that last hit-out, whereas Cory Jane should’ve retained his spot, in my opinion. Anything to get rid of Stephen Donald and once again, it is anyone’s guess as to why he had not played a single minute in his past two games as a reserve.
Officially, we should salute Stephen Donald after he had played his last international game coming off the bench against Scotland. Thanks for the memories mate.

And if there was ever a left-field selection, and if Israel Dagg returns from injury and sets the world on fire to take the coveted All Blacks fullback spot, Muliaina would not look lost at first five-eighth to cover Carter, the only complete all-rounder in world rugby.
Inevitably it is quite a scary probability of what could be, when the world stops the moment kick-off for Rugby World Cup 2011 commences.

New Zealand are clearly the benchmark and have the best team in the world at the moment, but anything can happen between now and then.
As for the fast-approaching tournament, the theme should simply read as, “Beware of the All Blacks”.

No comments: