All Blacks close in on win-win scenario
November 28, 2008
A capacity crowd will gather at Twickenham this weekend to see the All Blacks take on England © Getty Images
A huge windfall awaits the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) although more than financial rewards are on offer as the All Blacks seek to complete the Grand Slam against England at Twickenham.
After years of boosting the Rugby Football Union's coffers by attracting capacity crowds to "headquarters", the NZRU has finally gained a tangible return (estimated at NZ$2 million/£715,000) from a test added to the end-of-year itinerary once a ground-breaking revenue sharing agreement was negotiated.
A rare boardroom victory in the northern hemisphere is one to cherish, but the spinoffs from the All Blacks' 15th and final test of the season are actually four-fold. Aside from a cash injection for the NZRU, the All Blacks have a third Grand Slam within reach; original ownership of the Hillary Shield is at stake and, from a coaching perspective, a 13th victory in 2008 surely represents a degree of reconciliation between Graham Henry and a public disillusioned by his reappointment after the 2007 World Cup.
Henry and his assistants Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen already felt vindicated after retaining the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations crowns, although beating England for a seventh time in succession is still necessary to cap a year that has seen them withstand extreme pressure. The three of them have appeared remarkably relaxed in the English capital this week, and not without cause considering their personnel are yet to concede a try entering the final leg of their Grand Slam.
Since halftime at Hong Kong Stadium -- venue of the one-off Bledisloe Cup test on November 1 -- the All Blacks have also held their opposition scoreless in the second spell of all five tour games. Should the defence of their tryline hold, these All Blacks would become the first team to achieve a Grand Slam without conceding a try, a statistic to counter the blunting of their own attacking prowess.
The All Blacks have scored nine tries in three tests against Scotland, Ireland and Wales, a relatively low output compared to previous northern hemisphere tours. Backs coach Smith shrugged off the diminishing of his side's offensive arsenal while pointing to the scoreboards.
"With the ELVS (experimental law variations) and with defence coaches in the game, it's going to get harder and harder," he said. "Not too many teams are going to let us run rampant in the backs unless it's an Australia or a South Africa who also try to have a crack.
"Over here it's a battle every game. It might look like we're doing it easy, or in third gear, but we're not. I've had mates say `You did that pretty easy'. We've had to fight for everything."
Smith cited the midweek match against a weakened Munster, a rousing occasion to mark their victory over the 1978 All Blacks. A late try from Joe Rokocoko was needed to salvage an 18-16 win.
"You've seen teams here just about die for the cause. I don't think I've ever seen a team beaten up after a game like Munster."
However, serious doubts remain about the ability of England -- reeling from a defeat to Australia and a record 6-42 loss to South Africa last weekend -- to display the same fortitude against the most experienced pack (363 test caps) ever assembled by the All Blacks. England's performance since a misleading defeat of the Pacific Islanders on November 8 suggest the All Blacks should not be taxed.
World Cup runners-up in France last year, England have been tracking downwards ever since and threaten to drag the legacy of Martin Johnson, a legendary captain turned new manager, with them. Henry sympathised with his former British and Irish Lions captain while a host of former greats, including Sean Fitzpatrick, have also rallied behind Johnson after he dropped flighty first five-eighth Danny Cipriani.
There is no doubt Johnson oversees a team in transition. On the openside flank Michael Lipman has nine caps to the redoubtable Richie McCaw's 69. Mils Muliaina is playing his 68th test, English fullback Delon Armitage his fourth.
Henry still sounded a note of caution after watching South Africa's victory. "England played a lot of the game pretty good, the score wasn't a true indication of the game," he said.
A closer examination of the statistics reveal possession and territory favoured England. The Springboks made 143 tackles to England's 62. Possession was 59 percent to 41, territory 57-43. South Africa scored five tries to none, all figures that leave England's inadequacies all too bare.
In related news, Denver officials say they are close to securing a Bledisloe Cup rugby test between New Zealand and Australia next year. Metro Denver Sports Commission president KieAnn Brownell told the Rocky Mountain News that negotiations were on track to bring the test to 76,000-seat Mile High, home of National Football League team the Denver Broncos.
"We're pretty close," Brownell told the newspaper. "Our job is to get out of the box, to look for events that aren't necessarily on the country's radar.
"We think Colorado has a huge rugby population and a strong interest in the sport, and we fancy the idea of bringing rugby events to Denver and growing the community here."
USA Rugby, the national governing body, is based at Boulder, Colorado. The Denver Barbarians compete in the national Rugby Super League.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said last week that he was close to finalising up to three extra revenue generating games for the All Blacks next year. Another stated option is a test against Wales at Cardiff, tacked on to the All Blacks' traditional end-of-year tour.
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland