The World Champion All Blacks team have completed two out of four round-robin matches, with a mixture of performances in a tournament where the best teams must ‘hit the ground running’. Unfortunately, from what we have seen after these two hit-outs over the last 5 days, the All Blacks are not the finished product yet.
So where to now?
It is not all doom and gloom, so please don’t get me wrong. A combined score of 84 points, conceding just 30. That’s good by any standard, but just not All Blacks’ standards that fans rely on. And it will be a concern to all–Coaching staff, who have worked for over three years to get here, and the players who have made it a lifetimes investment.
For some it was all that, a Good performance. They know it could be better, but are happy to win and to sometimes win at any cost (in any way possible) No disrespect, as these fans will be happy with any win that advances their side in this competition. Malakai Fekitoa scored his try off of a wondrous offload by Sonny Bill Williams. A thing of beauty, that was surely surpassed when Beauden Barrett broke the line at pace to coast under the posts. He was the finishing move, and in the terrific buildup there was an almost perfect ‘off the lineout’ pass-back straight to the halfback to spread wide. Great work there guys, but these were more fleeting as the game wore on.
On the other side, many saw the team had an ‘off night’ against Namibia [58-14] that highlighted some cohesion issues and seemed to get worse over the course of a game. That is a worry, after years where we have seen the opposite trend: in the All Blacks regular results, incredible sequences of wins (2013 being a standout) Their methods to win of building into matches; like the Argentina game, had been successful in the past.
In matches like that, the side absorbs pressure initially, assessing their opposition and then ultimately recovering to win. And usually win very convincingly, but what we have seen so far in 2015 is a mixture of excellent attacking movement alongside ineffective ball management and over cautious rucking. Beaten for the ball too often, out numbered due to the flat-line defence and a bit of selfish play is minimising the sides conversion ratio, All of this has drawn plenty of criticism and my role is not the ‘fan the flames’ of discontent.
I observed the first match like any other fan. You believed they had room for some improvement obviously and that it was ‘rust’ that caused a messy opening act but even then, they looked the more likely to attack the line. They also benefited when Argentina did not take a key decision when the All Blacks were down to 13 men – they chose to kick after 37 minutes. A poor scoring decision that allowed the All Blacks play out the vital eight minutes until Conrad Smith returned from the second yellow card of the match. They paid the price for taking the foot off the pedal. New Zealand got the win and headed into this match as unbeatable.
Thankfully for all rugby fans, the stronger desire of Namibia saw a descent contest played out on Thursday, not just an ‘exhibition’ game. It was headed that way up until the steely defense turned the tide and they held up the Blacks well all the way to the 80th minute. Held them to nine tries, but just four successful conversions and less invention when substitutes took affect, it was commendable. Kicking was a problem for Barrett at least while he was at first-five, so that was badly reflective on him (and assisted Colin Slade’s claim to a coveted reserve spot) He was not as directive as Dan Carter or even Aaron Cruden.
Two matches remain
Georgia next Saturday and then they complete Pool Play with a final match against Tonga. Good matches each of them, as they have studied Georgia and Tonga will naturally be fierce and fired-up. So with their research done and relying on a familiarity with their Pacific neighbors, then the next two games are not entirely new ground and as a side, they know they can perform better. At least, it can’t get any worse.
Losing is not a genuine concern (as on Thursday, they had a 99.9% favouritism) but it means that after the African side in Pool B lost to Japan, that they would bounce back and may in fact rebuild to be a much stronger unit for the loss. It might bring that side together, as much as it could tear them apart.
All other premier matches have gone to form except for the Pool C Georgia v Tonga game that the European side won in a tough encounter. They overcame their favoured opponents, scoring points to do so which was nice to see. Kicking points is also critical, but when you can cross the line it reinforces your result. Just ask Japan; whom scored 34 points and some incredible tries facing the Springboks, so Georgia are now an increased threat. That is, compared to before the tournament that match may seen a more difficult task now.
In this last Namibia game, it was not a fear of losing that changed their thinking but a performance failure that limited the sides potential. Like a team who only manage to score one or two tries per game, they know that there is a better performance in them but don’t quite know how to bring it out. In the second half they seemed to be too insular that even some breaks from the forwards did not profit fully with only a handful of tries because of relentless tackling and competitiveness from Namibia.
Hats off to them, in the way you need to play as if your whole tournament depends on it now. That counts from game one, as much as games three and four, and I say this knowing that Giant-killer Japan could not backup their monumental opening win, in losing to Scotland on Wednesday. That fact aside, the All Blacks now need to see improvements in both remaining games to begin to peak by those qualifying rounds.
Namibia had made 111 total tackles compared to the All Blacks 35 [a three to one ratio] and they used that emphasis as an effective tool in upsetting the World Champions plans. It seemed to limit options as the game progressed more and even when their talismatic leader Jacques Burger was subbed after an immense 65 minutes, they still held the opposition to just a 24 point game in the second half. They tackled ferociously, with the team culture of a ‘Pride’ where they hunted All Blacks in the tackle ball area to hold them off their work.
A non-standard performance in the second half.
Tries from Julina Savea  and Nehe Milner-Skudder were interspersed with some lackluster play. Forwards did the heavy work, only for ball to be given away and advantage diminished when it mattered. And that was to the credit of Namibia, no dis-credit to All Black substitues- Kieran Read, who went straight into Lock, Keven Mealamu and Richie McCaw.
660 caps lay on the bench, so bringing in that experience, how could they not improve performance? But Sport is a strange beast. The oval ball bounces in ways we cannot predict. Scrums are contested and passion is not a value you can calculate. The old saying “out passioned” was brought up by team management post match, but there was an argument that this side ‘took their foot off the throat’ and could not complete the job.
Harsh reality? Yes, and it must be corrected now if this team now only has two more opportunities to improve performance. To build-in valuable gametime for leading players, then my observation is that fans old hated words Rest and Rotation must now be disregarded. Stop the constant change guys, look at the side as a high-performance vehicle that must run at 7000 revs. It needs to be pushed and to be on the road regularly.
This side might just benefit from that now with a possible five more games left to play. If we were to learn anything from the two matches played so far, it was that against Argentina they adapted better, so that side performed well. In the second match, they over-complicated the game and then more input from senior leaders just disjointed their focus.
Having Sam Cane in his first ever test as Captain was a risk. He was OK, but not extraordinary. Satisfactory, not sensational and while the coaches have mentioned a “risk or reward system” when the senior men walked on, should they have changed skipper? Maybe that was the issue – McCaw was too respectful of the on-field captain, but that captain then did not lead that group well, as he thought he was being watched?
Maybe the team just needed to play more relaxed, more open, and not be tense. Possibly then they would gel as individuals. Right now, it is an under-prepared side that will benefit from just one good performance to come right.
To achieve that, if the same number one side can demonstrate their excellence and begin, then all concerns should be squashed. If by playing the same side repeatedly does not improve the outcome, then dropping players for a lack of form is required quickly. So I believe it is close to being a ‘perform now or sit up in the stands’ situation.
If you can secure your role, like Carter has. Like Aaron, Ben and Conrad Smith have. In the way Dane Coles and locks Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have, then you may just end up playing a series of games with your starting spot secure (not an original idea mind you) Run those men out for both the Georgia and Tonga matches and being professionals, that position should be known early and always reinforced after every good performance.
Up to this Namibia match, Yes we still have some room for improvement. Do that; and I believe they can, and they will genuinely rank as the number one position they have earned. If not, then long-term rankings will ultimately count for little at this Rugby World Cup and we will be asking more questions of this 2015 squad.