Preparing for the unexpected
August 8, 2011
Richie McCaw lifts the Bledisloe Cup and will hope to lifting more silverware come October © Getty Images
Yes, the All Blacks looked to be in good form in defeating the Wallabies at Eden Park, and they are clearly going to be formidable World Cup foes on their own patch next month. But both Graham Henry and Richie McCaw struck the right notes at the post-match press conference.
There has been a lot of loose press talk about the winner of the first Bledisloe Cup match gaining a crucial psychological ascendancy, and a lot of nonsense written about the likelihood of the trans-Tasman rivals clashing again in the World Cup final. Both coach and skipper were measured in their comments, emphasising what anyone with any knowledge of World Cup history knows only too well: Prepare for the unexpected.
The All Blacks have been the victims of too many World Cup ambushes to be taking too much out of their retention of the Bledisloe Cup. Both in 1999 and 2007 they were supposed to enjoy psychological advantages over the French, in particular, but on both occasions came memorably and spectacularly unstuck. Whilst the Wallabies were well beaten on Saturday night, coach Robbie Deans was not simply whistling in the dark when he claimed that lessons would be learned and that his side would return for World Cup action the better for the experience. The Australian sporting psyche seems particularly adept at absorbing setbacks and bouncing forward and excelling at the big occasions.
Having said all that, All Blacks coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen will feel that their preparations are going well and that their side is finding potent form at precisely the right moment in the four-yearly cycle.
Dan Carter and Piri Weepu complemented each other magnificently. Both have had injury-disrupted seasons, but perhaps that will prove to be a benefit as each seemed very fresh and hungry for the battle. We always expect Carter's kicking and tactical acumen to be of the highest order but against the Wallabies it was his tackling and defensive cover work that caught the eye. In my mind Weepu has now established himself as the All Blacks' premier half-back, his all round footballing skills and big match temperament providing an exceptional link between forwards and backs.
In midfield Ma'a Nonu again lifted his intensity, responding to the threat of the benched Sonny Bill Williams in a manner that coach Henry will find impossible to ignore. Particularly in the first-half, when the game was effectively won, Nonu was in the thick of everything, his try a back-row forward's burrowing effort that spoke volumes for his commitment and determination to retain his place. Neither is there a serious rival for Conrad Smith's place at centre, his footballing intelligence a crucial component in the All Black's back division.
Whilst Cory Jane was widely expected to figure at Eden Park after his performance against the Springboks the previous weekend, I take his omission to mean that he will be included in the World Cup squad, that the coaches wanted to give Sivivatu some more game time at the top level. He didn't disappoint. Hosea Gear had some good touches, suggesting that he has responded to demands that he improve his all round game involvement, but against the Wallabies the game didn't really run his way. Will Henry go with him or Zac Guildford?
With the exception of prop Wyatt Crockett, it is easy to imagine the pack fielded by the All Blacks being the one that will line up against Tonga on September 9th. Not that the Cantabrian did anything wrong, it is just that the formidable Tony Woodcock is returning to fitness and is likely to play in South Africa next weekend. It is difficult to see any opposition getting the better of a front row of Woodcock, Mealamu and Franks. The latter improves with every game, possesses enormous natural strength and is a damaging scrummager and defender.
Ali Williams' return to fitness offers the All Blacks more options and strike power. He has always been a big match player and will thrive at the World Cup. In the engine room with Brad Thorn he offered familiar dexterity and brute force against the Wallabies. Sam Whitelock offers a similar style to Williams and may have to be content with a bench place come the really big games.
The back-row options seem straightforward and unlikely to pose Henry too many problems. McCaw, Read and Kaino are automatic selections with the likes of Adam Thomson providing cover in all three positions. Read is in the tradition of great All Blacks No.8s, rugged, mobile and with a wonderful range of skills. He always seems to be on hand and possesses an extraordinary engine. Kaino is a brick wall, but a skilful and thinking brick wall now at the very peak of his career. McCaw is simply one of the all time great flankers whose consistency of form and performance is a wonder to behold.
The All Blacks management possibly wish that the World Cup was beginning this week, instead of them having to make the trek to South Africa. That now seems like a trip fraught with dangers, the possibility of injuries concerning as the Boks prepare to roll out their big guns in welcome.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
When the Lions toured South Africa in 1974, some thought rugby could break down barriers. But John Taylor refused to make the trip altogether
"I think in a couple of seasons London Irish can be a genuine force and contenders for the Premiership." Tom Hamilton talks to Brian Smith
"I hate this talk of survival, we are going there to compete." Tom Hamilton talks to London Welsh's Justin Burnell and Matt Corker
The latest Week in Pictures takes in Madagascar, Nick Cummins and all the latest photographs from Super Rugby