All Blacks not willing to rest on their laurels
NEW ZEALAND took time to put together the complete performance they had been threatening, but their last two matches in the inaugural Rugby Championship firmly showed they had moved the game on from last years successful World Cup campaign.
The All Blacks, unlike previous Webb Ellis trophy winners, avoided a World Cup hangover, sweeping through the Rugby Championship’s six matches unbeaten after defeating Ireland 3-0 in their June series.
They have now won 16 successive Tests, one short of the record amongst tier one rugby nations, which is held jointly by the New Zealand side of the late 1960s and South Africa in the late 1990s.
Steve Hansen’s team can match that in Brisbane on October 20th with another Test against Australia before both sides embark on season-ending northern hemisphere tours. If the All Blacks win at Lang Park, the European sides will be hard pressed to prevent them breaking, and extending, the world record of 18 successive wins held by Lithuania.
Under Hansen, the All Blacks have tried to play the game at a much faster pace than they had done in the past, with forwards and backs combining at high intensity to change angles, get wide and stretch defences across the park.
It took them until their 54-15 victory over Argentina in their penultimate game to achieve that goal, which they were able to repeat in the second half of their 32-16 win over South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday. Despite their attack finally clicking in their last two matches, it was, ironically, Israel Dagg’s yellow card late in the match against the Springboks that demonstrated the All Blacks resolve in their run to the title.
Composure under pressure, allied with an aggressive defensive line stopped the Springboks’ attack and the forwards forced a turnover that allowed Dan Carter and his tactical nous to move them down field, where they spent the majority of the undermanned 10 minutes in attack and were rewarded with a penalty goal to extend their lead.
Such was the effectiveness of the All Blacks’ defence, they conceded six tries across the entire Championship and scored 18, 17 of which were by the backs. Of those 18 tries, 13 were scored in their three away games in Sydney, La Plata and Johannesburg, emphasising the teams ability to win anywhere and in style.
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer will not be as satisfied as his All Blacks counterpart, with just two victories and a lucky away draw against the Pumas, to finish third in the tournament.
South Africa squandered a big lead against the runner-up Wallabies to lose in Perth and left several points on the field against the All Blacks in Dunedin with poor goal kicking. Meyer, however, introduced several younger players including lock Eben Etzebeth, flanker Marcell Coetzee and outhalf Johan Goosen to Test rugby this season as they look to build for the 2015 World Cup.
While Meyer initially stuck with misfiring outhalf Morne Steyn, whose kick-oriented game had pressured the All Blacks in Dunedin, the spark provided by Goosen in their penultimate game against the Wallabies showed their attacking potential.
Australia’s gallant, if error-strewn, win over Argentina in the closing match in Rosario on Saturday was enough to snatch second place in the championship and the world number two ranking back from the Springboks.
But the Wallabies endured a largely miserable campaign, blighted by injuries and lashed by media criticism at home. Already robbed of skipper James Horwill, the team lost flanker David Pocock for the tournament due to a serious knee injury in the opener against New Zealand and lost scrumhalf Will Genia two matches later in a horror run dubbed the “captain’s curse”.
Further injuries exposed a worrying lack of depth in the Wallabies’ line-up, and forced embattled coach Robbie Deans to introduce 11 new caps. Deans, already under intense media pressure, was further undermined by injured outhalf Quade Cooper who publicly criticised his coaching. In an extraordinary attack, Cooper ruled himself out of playing another game for the Wallabies under Deans’s charge.
Deans has two weeks to lift his side to face New Zealand in Brisbane, and take a step to catching up to the world champions in the final dead rubber match of the Bledisloe Cup, which the All Blacks wrapped up in August to retain the trans-Tasman trophy for a 10th successive season.