A deadly mix of grunt and guile
August 7, 2010
New Zealand's Richie McCaw gets to grips with Australia's Anthony Faingaa © Getty Images
New Zealand delivered yet another rugby lesson against Australia in Christchurch and although not a crowd-pleasing try-fest, this latest textbook performance was equally emphatic and offered even more reason for alarm amongst those trailing in the All Blacks' wake.
Two tries may not have been enough for the bonus point win that would have seen them reclaim the Tri-Nations crown but they underlined their class with a superb defensive display that choked the life out of a much-improved Australia. That enviable ability to deny your opponent the chance to capitalise when you are not at your sharpest is a credit to the players and the coaching team who have nurtured such a deadly blend and a fierce team ethic.
As a spectacle it may not have lived up to its predecessors but we should perhaps be grateful that for the first time in this year's Tri-Nations we saw 15 versus 15 for a full 80 minutes. The recent outbreak of yellow fever appears to have eased but there will be more raised eyebrows over the referee's performance, with All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock somehow escaping sanction from Jonathan Kaplan for a cheap hit on Wallabies hooker Saia Faingaa that may yet draw the attention of the citing officer.
Captain Richie McCaw was once again at the heart of his side's effort on the occasion of his 50th Test as All Blacks skipper but this team is exactly that and, as talented they may be as individuals, their commitment as a whole is what makes them such a formidable proposition. What will be particularly pleasing for head coach Graham Henry is the way they continue to convert opportunities into points, with two tries in an opening quarter hour during which they also showed how they can roll with the punches with the Wallabies break-out try failing to undermine their efforts. Starved of the ball they were unable to dictate the pace of the game while the defensive demands will have also taken their toll on their hopes to run the Wallabies ragged.
The All Blacks' backline always looked more threatening than their Australian rivals but failed to hammer home that clear advantage and the regularity at which they felt the wrath of Kaplan's whistle at the breakdown, where they continue to walk a fine line, will no doubt keep Henry and co busy ahead of their trip to Johannesburg in a fortnight's time.
It was not to be a happy homecoming for Deans, who saw his side slip to their ninth successive defeat at the hands of New Zealand on a ground where a stand bears his name in recognition of the role he played in the region's rise to prominence on the Super Rugby stage. Sadly for him, his Wallabies failed to display the same kind of ruthless precision that his Crusaders sides used to title-winning effect.
As an overall performance it was a big step forward from last weekend's drubbing and the character shown by his players, who raised their game significantly, is a huge plus. But the fact they were still inferior to an All Blacks side some way from their rampant best will continue to give Deans a headache in the weeks and months ahead.
The absence of suspended fly-half Quade Cooper continues to haunt the Wallabies with their lack of a game-breaker all too evident in Christchurch. For long periods the visitors dominated possession and territory but failed to break down the All Blacks wall they met at every turn. Cooper might not have been able to pick that lock but he has the priceless ability to keep defences guessing and also raise the game of those around him. Without Cooper alongside them, both fly-half Matt Giteau and scrum-half Will Genia struggled to make an impression - starved of front foot ball in a painfully lateral Wallabies side.
The positives for the Wallabies also included a warrior-like display from flanker David Pocock, who put his body on the line admirably, and a more than able showing from centre Anthony Faingaa on his first start in the green and gold, with the 23-year-old making his presence felt in midfield. But errors plagued the Wallabies throughout with the pressure from the All Blacks taking its toll. And that lack of precision at key moments proved to be their downfall and reinforces the fact that they have some way to go to match their Trans-Tasman rivals. Rarely will they dominate the key stats of possession and territory against an All Blacks side which makes the fact they didn't capitalise on this opportunity all the more painful. But the success they did achieve offered hope that this current crop of All Blacks are not the invincible force we had been led to believe.
This year's Tri-Nations continues to be played at a breath-taking pace with the wind and rain at the AMI Stadium doing little to hamper the creative efforts of both sides. There may have been a little more kicking in this encounter than we have become used to in recent weeks but the emphasis was still very much on playing with the ball in hand with the fitness levels on show simply astounding. And that fact should be embraced by the northern hemisphere's finest, who must not only strive to attain the same skill level as the superpowers of the south but also ensure they have the stamina to go toe to toe for 80 minutes if they are serious about challenging for the sport's biggest prize next year.
The All Blacks' trip to South Africa for their next Tri-Nations clash may not be the victory parade they had hoped it would be but they will no doubt delight in the opportunity to wrap up the title and reclaim their thrown at the home of the side that deposed them.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.