Henry admits All Blacks still playing catch-up
September 20, 2009
All Blacks coach Graham Henry still has plenty of food for thought ahead of his side's end of year tour © Getty Images
New Zealand coach Graham Henry is refusing to get carried away by his side's return to winning ways against Australia on Saturday.
The All Blacks wrapped up a largely disappointing Tri-Nations campaign with a comprehensive 33-6 victory over the Wallabies in Wellington. The win saw them restore some pride having relinquished the southern hemisphere crown to South Africa in Hamilton the previous week but Henry played down the significance of their transformation.
"We didn't make the same sort of errors but we weren't under the same sort of pressure," he said following the Westpac Stadium clash. "It's a different game against different opposition. At the moment we're struggling to handle that South African pressure, particularly if we can't get solid first phase ball.
"It takes a wee bit of time for these guys to be competitive against a side that is choc-full of internationals who have played a lot of Test matches together."
Henry's acknowledgement that South Africa are currently in a different league to the All Blacks and a young Wallabies side comes in the wake of three straight defeats defeats at the hands of the Springboks - the last a narrow 32-29 reverse at the Waikato Stadium.
But Henry is quietly confident that his side will soon be back on a level footing with the current world champions. Henry estimated that injury had left him without 10 to 12 quality players who could make a difference against South Africa. The likes of prop Carl Hayman and other English-based former All Blacks such as Nick Evans, Aaron Mauger and Doug Howlett could yet be added to the mix either next year or leading up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
"There's a lot of people coming back from injury, there may be one or two come back from overseas next year," Henry said. "When all those guys come back, and with the current squad, there's going to be a lot of competition for places. That should improve the side immensely. The big test is when we play the boys from South Africa again and see how we function at lineout time."
Competition begins on the tour of Japan and Europe starting in five weeks. Saturday's starting team - whose makeup bears an uncanny symmetry - will have the inside running in nearly every position.
South Island players make up the back five of the pack and the halves while North Islanders fill the front row and outside back division. The best loose forward trio seems to have been unearthed, with Adam Thomson and Kieran Read surely having usurped Jerome Kaino and Rodney So'oialo. And there is probably a belated recognition that rookie Canterbury forwards Owen Franks and Isaac Ross had too much responsibility on their youthful shoulders this season.
The All Blacks' set piece work on Saturday was more composed with the reintroduction of prop Neemia Tialata and selection of no-nonsense lock Tom Donnelly, whose debut performance reflected several years at the domestic coalface for Otago. Henry's next hurdle is another dead rubber test against the Wallabies, in Tokyo on October 31.
The proven coaching ability of his besieged counterpart Robbie Deans faces a major challenge before then. He must lift his side after a massive slide backwards on Saturday from the 21-6 stunning of the Springboks in Brisbane two weeks earlier.
"We'll look at some of the realities," he said. "This young group took a step in Brisbane. They have now experienced both extremes. It was an experience we were hopeful of avoiding, obviously."
Deans becomes the first Australian coach to oversee six straight losses to the All Blacks but retains the belief and support of his players according to one of the team's more experienced members, flanker Rocky Elsom.
"When you have good wins or bad losses, you have to accept it as a team," Elsom said. "Age, you can't use that as an excuse. It's not a handicap match, you've got who you've got and that's the best you've got."