Thursday 23 March 2017

All Blacks in driving seat as countdown begins

The chasing pack have much to do to catch high-flying New Zealand, writes Paul Ackford

In the 2007 World Cup final between South Africa and England, there were 91 kicks in open play. In this season's Tri Nations, the average was around 35, a figure which dropped dramatically to just 18 in one encounter between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. With a smidgen under a year to go before the next World Cup commences in Auckland, the trend is clear: tries are up, penalties from kicks at goal down. The game it is a-changing.

From this distance it appears inconceivable that New Zealand will not win the competition for the first time since 1987 to repair an ache which has become chronic. They were far from convincing in their one-point victory against Australia yesterday. Their handling was particularly scratchy.

But to win away from home after scoring 14 unanswered points late on was some achievement.

The Blacks will have to contend with the doubts which invariably haunt them: that they always peak between World Cups, not at them; that they are over-reliant on Dan Carter and Richie McCaw; that pointers going into the tournament are redundant because the nature of the knockout stages are so dramatically different from any other game of rugby.

Yet, while those concerns remain, they no longer have the same potency because Australia and New Zealand, by some distance, are the two sides best equipped to benefit from the looser, more dynamic configuration of Test rugby.

Australia's good fortune is that they have always unearthed and encouraged players intelligent and gifted enough to play it as they see it, and Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Berrick Barnes and Matt Giteau all fit neatly into that category. With the frequency of passes in the Tri Nations up year-on-year by 40 per cent, and the frequency of rucks up by 50 per cent, decision-making and execution on the hoof is becoming increasingly important.

It may have taken a while for Australia to cotton on to how the game is evolving, but in their two recent matches against South Africa they were playing out of defence, ball in hand from inside their 22, with as much facility as the All Blacks managed at the start of the competition.

And therein lies another important indicator. Last November, I hooked up with Graham Henry. New Zealand's coach had just seen his side trump Wales, Italy, England and France, yet old misery guts was far from happy. He was concerned that, with all the kicking prevalent at that time, his side weren't counter-attacking effectively.

Henry's response was to deconstruct the way the Blacks returned ball from deep, concluding that fitness to get bodies back in support was an issue, and that it was important to have staging points to recycle the ball and interest defenders. Six months later New Zealand's counter-attacking strategy was revitalised.

Henry and the All Blacks are able to do that because they operate from a position of strength. In an 86-Test career with the All Blacks stretching back to June 2004, Henry's success rate is a staggering 85 per cent. His team average 3.95 tries per contest.

McCaw, New Zealand's captain, has won 46 of his 52 Tests in charge, and has only come a cropper in 10 of his 89 games overall. Tom Donnelly, the All Black lock brought in to partner Brad Thorn, has not lost a match in the 13 appearances he has made. Where other teams around the world are worrying about combinations and leadership and where the next victory is coming from, Henry and his coaching team are able to address the issue of how best to play the game itself.

South Africa and Australia do not have that luxury. Robbie Deans, Australia's coach, is vacillating around the 50 per cent mark when it comes to games won, and South African supremo Peter de Villiers is vacillating near the door marked 'exit', so dire have the Boks been for the majority of their six games against the Wallabies and the Blacks. It is not the fact that South Africa have won only once that has damaged De Villiers, it is the embarrassment that his team have conceded more than 30 points a game.

Even if the growing clamour for Jake White and Eddie Jones, the Boks' World Cup-winning coaching duo, to replace De Villiers succeeds, South Africa still have a number of problems. It is now palpably plain that skipper John Smit can no longer last the distance, having been substituted around the hour mark in each of his last two matches.

There is also no evidence emerging that the Springboks are prepared to confront the new realities of Test rugby, relying, as ever, on big men running relatively uncomplicated straight lines to get over the advantage line.

And when Bok supporters, admittedly not the most sophisticated grouping on the planet, start jeering Bryan Habana, as they did in Bloemfontein a week ago, it is clear that South African rugby is in a right old mess.

So, New Zealand ahead of the pack with Australia tucked in behind and South Africa pedalling furiously to catch up. Those seem to be the conclusions a year out from the World Cup at the close of a Tri Nations tournament which has provided stunning entertainment as well as some compelling drama. But, the All Blacks were a racing certainty going into the last World Cup, and look what happened then.

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