All Blacks take the ordinary and put the extra to it
From Israel Dagg to Richie McCaw, New Zealand have all the key game-breakers
THE LAST four words of the New Zealand anthem are ‘God Defend New Zealand’. For some time the Irishman Thomas Bracken’s words, penned in the 1870s, have been sorely tested, no more so than in the Christchurch earthquake earlier this year. Not unlike the USA Eagles against Ireland in New Plymouth, emotions will be high in Auckland.
Will this affect the machine that is the All Blacks? I think not, but it may affect individuals contained in the team. Aaron Cruden at 10 will be carrying some weight on his young shoulders and will surely be targeted by France. If they fail to unearth him – his decision making, his defence and especially his distribution – they will lose. If they do unearth him they may have a chance.
Further out there is a real star. From his very early entrée in the pool stages it was obvious All Black fullback Israel Dagg was special. He was either constantly carrying the ball over the try line or shouldering those who did. At 95kgs (the same as Thierry Dusautoir) he’s not small, but beside Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams he could be mistaken as such. His special skill is the ability to spot an opportunity. Not many would see Rocky Elsom as an opportunity but Dagg did and left him decked in providing for Nonu’s try last Sunday. It took five minutes.
Very few can ride the tackler as he can, exposing the sweet spot of the defender, hitting his exact weak point just when the tackler is most vulnerable, stretching out in vain to pull him down. Elsom has experienced it, so too will the French. First try scorer Sunday, Israel Dagg?
Of course far more contributes to Dagg’s potential damage than his ability to ride tackles. Graham Henry’s parting words in the post-match victory over Australia were prophetic. On being asked how they’ll prepare for the French challenge, he replied simply: “It’s back to basics.”
This is the All Black secret. They do the basics like no other team on the planet. The precision of their clear out is sensational. To witness each All Black spot the danger in the breakdown, target it and smash very low as they did against the Wallabies was extraordinary.
In fact that’s it, they take the ordinary and put the extra to it. They appear to arrive not at a ruck but an organic environment; they dissect it first and then smash it, snuffing out any oxygen and David Pocock plays for Australia, not France.
Yes they appear to push the boundaries, with Richie McCaw at the forefront. But their technique is physical like the Somoans but also very intelligent; safety in numbers. Although injured, McCaw was unbelievable last week and I urge you to watch what he does off the ball, what he does away from the breakdown, his lines of running, in fact take notes on him as the game evolves.
Yes Dusautoir and Julien Bonnaire can tackle and work hard but they are no match for McCaw’s overall game. In Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn and Conrad Smith the All Blacks have their special ingredients; brutal, athletic, ferociously competitive and highly skilled. I simply adore watching Thorn.
As for France, much will be written about the state of chassis they find themselves in; coach, selection and form. The players appear to have taken over, which for the romantics will be a fitting end to this inglorious journey. The romantics will expect one last hurrah.There is no way a player-led final can get them across the line.
The level at which the French find themselves requires the sharpest of minds to execute the finest of details in order to in some way expose the All Blacks. But like the Wallabies, the French have something that most other nations don’t. For all the squabbles in camp they know they’ve got it in them, they have beaten them. But more importantly they have more to offer than the Wallabies, who beat the All Blacks only a matter of weeks ago.
At the risk of heading down the pre Wales-Ireland route, I would like to take a look at how Argentina approached the All Blacks and unearth possible weaknesses. Argentina approached their defence very differently frp, the Wallabies, who stood off, electing for brains, space and drift, while also rotating Quade Cooper outfield off first phase play.
Last week I highlighted Morgan Parra, the tiny tot at 10 for France. Against Wales he made two big stops belying his stature; Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau. Few in rugby, especially at 10, would manage a similar feat.
France have a physical back line and Aurelien Rougerie at outside centre can lead by example and match the Pumas, who were in the All Black faces, putting huge pressure on each ball carrier.
France have a massive pressure game in them, basic but ferocious. The Pumas derived huge rewards from this style. Cruden is on a very steep learning curve and there’s no doubt taking time off him through a push defence will force a higher degree of accuracy that wasn’t required from him against Australia.
The pace the All Blacks put on the ball is frightening but France must get at Cruden, which could be the difference from Australia.
Australian winger Digby Ioane asked questions of the All Black defence but was on his own. France have similar players to Ioane and simply can’t plod their way through the 80 minutes. It would be a travesty for world rugby if Maxime Medard doesn’t run as hard as he can ball in hand.
The French scrum is a damn fine unit and their lineout is none too sloppy, but William Servat at hooker must last the 80 minutes. They have nothing to lose and allied to the knowledge they can beat them will make for an interesting opening 30 minutes. To turn the bookies upside down they will need to do two things; starve the All Blacks of as much time and space as possible and play as French men have been doing for over a century. Kicking is not going to win this for the French, loose kicking is definitely not going to as the All Black back three are big fielders, big counters and very big return kickers.
The breakdown is the place where the All Blacks will rule supreme. France simply don’t require the same level of precision in the Six Nations, utilising their physicality to dominate the remainder. The All Blacks bring the breakdown down to a new level, where McCaw is but one of 15 professors of the art.
Finally and hopefully putting the much debated red card to bed I wish to advance the following. Last Sunday my nephew Oisín scored two tries while playing for Old Crescent under 8s. Nothing new there! That both were out of the Chris Ashton school of diving was hilarious but therein lies the message. If an U8 copies the spectacularly creative he will also mimic the spectacularly destructive.