From the outhouse to the penthouse. In the space of five matches on their Northern Tour the All Blacks have stunningly recovered their reputation.
In a match that could only be described as a showcase of free flowing power rugby, the Kiwis blew Les Bleus out of the Stade Velodrome in Marseille.
How is it that just a few months back they were on the verge of becoming the worst performing team in All Black history and vilified by all and sundry?
Limping through a domestic international series including a loss to France and three Tri-Nations defeats to the Boks, any more than four test losses in a season would have sent them to purgatory, a place where rugby coaches never return.
One more loss and there would have been bloodletting – Smug Ted’s, Porky Hansen’s or Smithy’s, plus a ream of players.
Luckily for them their next match was against an under performing and heartless Wallabies side in Wellington and all was forgiven as the All Blacks easily saw them off.
There were two major differences between those early games and the rest of the season, injuries to Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and to a lesser extent Sitiveni Sivivatu.
You’ll remember the five eighth conundrum over Stephen ‘Andrew’ Donald’s journeyman-like performances and the fast tracking (with indecent haste) of Luke McAlister from the Old Dart to provide some sort of cover.
Of course, the All Blacks without their talisman McCaw were like Laurel without Hardy. The International Rugby Player of the Year makes that much of a difference.
I’m afraid Tanerau Latimer or Adam Thompson at openside, albeit both very good players, are no substitute for the world’s best flanker.
It took them a little while to fire, especially with Carter returning from a serious injury, but once back and match fit they both contributed magnificently. And where did they get that match fitness?
In the second tier Air New Zealand Cup which provides a huge resource well for Kiwi rugby. Think Zac Guildford, Mike Delany, Ben Smith, Wyatt Crockett, Andy Ellis and Tamati Ellison whose All Black selection credentials were enhanced and in some cases secured via this tournament.
In Australia we can only look from afar and dream that one day we’ll have a talent pool like this to provide ‘ready made’ recruits to the Wallaby program.
Another thing the All Blacks have had to adjust to in recent years is the bleeding of players to the euro or pound – Jack, Hayman, Collins etc and importantly promising players who would be their potential replacements. There have also been long term injuries to Ali Williams, Keven Mealamu, Isaia Toeava and McAlister.
Despite winning last year’s Grand Slam, the pundits predicted that this year’s ‘almost famous’ team would have great difficulty patching together five successive wins and based on form that was a reasonable call. The problem areas had been the lineout, continuity and a general lack of confidence.
The Northern Tour began in Tokyo with the Wallabies being dished up for another helping, the seventh successive win against their weakest Tri-Nation’s opponent. This 32-19 win gave the All Blacks confidence to take onto Europe.
Wales provided stern opposition, certainly sterner than against the Wallabies, and went down fighting 19-12. The Welsh seemingly have a psychological issue with the All Blacks, being unable to defeat them in the last 56 years.
Despite plenty of possession and expansive play, the Welsh were too lateral and couldn’t break the All Black defence. The All Blacks responded by ‘Garryowens’ all day.
Next up, the dirties had a run against Italy and were somewhat embarrassed in front of a partisan 80,000 crowd in Milan. This was an ugly match with the Italians taking it up to NZ at scrum time. The Italians were trying to slow the game down and minimise the damage, rather than attempting to win.
The match (won 20-6) will be best remembered for the last six minutes as the Italians were camped on the All Black line giving their scrum ‘what-ho’, time after time, penalty after penalty.
Stu Dickinson will remember this game for all the wrong reasons.
The All Black First XV was back on deck for the England match. It took about two thirds of the game before the All Blacks finally got on top of a surprisingly resilient England side.
There was only one try in it and the Poms were continuing to attack at the end but once the score blew out to 19-6 it was effectively over.
Despite some criticism of the skill levels on both sides, the match was entertaining as a spectacle with the All Blacks very pleased with their defensive performance and England happy not to be embarrassed.
Ooh la, la. Les All Blacks were simply outstanding against Le Frog in a 39-12 thrashing. A sublime performance of running rugby and a lesson in how the game should be played.
The All Blacks have improved incrementally throughout the season and appear to be just about back to their normal self. The progression of players like Reid, Donnelly, Franks and Jane must be heartening news for them as the All Black sausage machine keeps churning them out.
In comparison to the All Blacks depth, the NZ Herald puts the Wallabies situation in perspective:
A huge Wallaby victory in Cardiff, built on a tremendous frontrow effort, was an illusion. The Welsh defence, from the start, was woeful and their passion and fluidity non-existent. You can forgive the odd defensive alignment problem, but the one-on-one tackling was pathetic. The Welsh scrum was dreadful, especially on the tighthead side. Australia’s spread of quality players barely covers the starting XV and is quickly exposed on the bench, as it will continue to be.
I suppose that means Ted is now allowed to be smug.