JUSTIN MARSHALL 17/09/2012
OPINION: Remarkable. How else can you describe the performance of All Blacks captain fantastic Richie McCaw under the roof of Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.
This was McCaw's 110th test match in a career spanning more than a decade, but his standards remain as high as ever. And I reckon the All Blacks needed their skipper at his very best to help them eke out a 21-11 victory that, in the end, was a bit more convincing than it might have been.
McCaw had the biggest influence on the match, and the biggest presence. He was a man-and-a-half, playing at a level beyond everybody else. He was absolutely incredible.
His work rate and his physicality were immense, he ran with the ball, he broke the line, he scrambled manfully on defence . . . he was basically wearing a cape. He was superman. You've just got to be in awe of what he produced to guide the All Blacks home.
On the other hand, I wasn't quite as impressed as some have been with the efforts of halfback Aaron Smith, who came on after halftime and earned many of the headlines with his brilliant individual try. Maybe that had more to do with the circumstances of his benching than the content of his 40 minutes.
I thought Smith was average. No more, no less. His kicking wasn't great, and he missed a pretty important tackle when Bryan Habana scored his try. What he did do was score a great individual try that was crucial for the All Blacks.
It was a difficult night for both halfbacks, but if you break down Smith's half you would see he cleared the ball accurately and efficiently, his pass was great, and he made a crucial break. But he still had some inaccuracies in his game. Piri Weepu didn't get an armchair ride in the first half either, and things were difficult at the breakdown at times. But I'm not sure one great minute of 40 from Smith makes his an exceptional half of rugby.
We can draw some clear overall conclusions after the All Blacks' final home test of the year, and their seventh victory in as many matches in 2012.
They have said they're going to play at tempo, and with an expansive approach. They've shown glimpses of promise, with Hamilton the exception where everything stuck and the continuity and pace was exceptional. But against quality opposition who have challenged at the breakdown they haven't been able to get a consistent flow going.
But what is functioning extremely well is defence, where they've been outstanding, epitomised in Dunedin by McCaw.
A lot of the tackles were very physical, with some big shoulders going in. They're working very, very well as a unit defensively.
In seven tests the All Blacks have conceded five tries. All of the teams they've faced contain game-breakers who can punish lapses, such as Habana did in Dunedin. But even his score was more down to a missed tackle than a system error.
The All Blacks have just not yielded, their concentration and work ethic has been great and they're scrambling like nothing else. Their desperation to keep their line intact is unbelievable.
Of course we're looking for perfection, and we like to see our players express themselves with the ball, play at pace and entertain us. But for whatever reason they haven't been able to get the attack right. Still, it's encouraging the other aspect of the game is enough to secure test wins.
Opponents can't find a way to put the All Blacks under points pressure. South Africa left a lot of points out there, and couldn't keep the scoreboard ticking over like they should have. They blew two clear-cut try opportunities, and kicked badly as well.
The All Blacks had less possession, territory and rucks on Saturday night, which wasn't the first time they haven't dominated the stats. Yet they're winning comfortably because they're so good on defence.
A word on South Africa too. I love their passion and when they play us you can see the hunger in their eyes. They're a determined bunch, but they were poor on Saturday, which saddens me.
They looked lost in what they were trying to achieve. They'd string five or six phases, get over the advantage line and then kick away decent ball. They look confused.
If they're going to implement a game plan based around kicking they've got to be more accurate. It was bloody horrible - at the posts and in general. When you play a kicking game you suffocate teams by pinning them back and forcing turnovers. They would do that, but then miss their shots at goal.
The South Africans let the All Blacks stay in the game, and paid the price as McCaw led the way to yet another test victory.
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