Smith drama big­gest chal­lenge for All Blacks in some time

Malta Independent - - SPORT - South Africa: Re­serves: New Zealand: Re­serves:

With no other rugby team com­ing close to un­set­tling New Zealand, the drama and dis­trac­tion of scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s sus­pen­sion ap­pears to be the big­gest ob­sta­cle be­tween the All Blacks and an­other supremely dom­i­nant sea­son.

Even then, it’s un­likely that the in­ci­dent and Smith’s ab­sence for the world cham­pion’s fi­nal test of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship in South Africa — when the All Blacks could equal the record for con­sec­u­tive wins — will de­rail one of the most im­pres­sive teams in world sport and its 16-game streak.

On the field, T.J. Per­e­nara pro­vides such a strong backup at No. 9 that New Zealand won’t be any weaker with­out Smith.

And off the field, an un­shake­able team cul­ture that has cre­ated a con­sis­tent level of ex­cel­lence since the first of back-to-back World Cup wins in 2011 means it’s hard to see any dip in fo­cus.

For­mer South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer, whose team lost to New Zealand in last year’s World Cup semi­fi­nals, told South African me­dia this week that it was what went on be­hind the scenes with the All Blacks that made them the best.

“What peo­ple don’t un­der­stand,” Meyer said, “is that what­ever hap­pens off the field trans­lates di­rectly into what hap­pens on it. This is where the All Blacks are ahead of the rest.”

Meyer de­scribed how the stars of the All Blacks, rugby’s most fa­mous team, weren’t above clean­ing the dress­ing room.

“They’ve got an un­be­liev­able team cul­ture where se­nior play­ers sweep the dress­ing room. It’s all about the team and there are no prima don­nas,” Meyer said.

“The lead­er­ship group met and were unan­i­mous in the fact that be­hav­ior was not ac­cept­able,” said Steve Hansen, the thick-set, straight-talk­ing head coach who has been with the All Blacks’ staff for 12 years.

Smith’s ac­tions also prompted rec­ol­lec­tions in New Zealand of the last and only other time an All Black left a tour for dis­ci­plinary rea­sons: Keith Mur­doch was sent home from Wales in 1972 for punch­ing a se­cu­rity guard af­ter he was re­fused en­try to a closed bar.

The Smith con­tro­versy broke as New Zealand’s squad ar­rived in South Africa af­ter a mem­ber of the public com­plained be­lat­edly about the air­port in­ci­dent, and Smith asked to be al­lowed to go home. He’ll face a mis­con­duct hear­ing, and a me­dia storm, back in New Zealand.

In Dur­ban, the chal­lenge for the rest of the All Blacks is to charge through the dis­trac­tion and on to a record-equal­ing 17th test win in top-tier rugby, and give the game’s most cel­e­brated team a chance at an­other ac­com­plish­ment, the out­right world record, at home against Aus­tralia in two weeks.

Op­po­nent South Africa has its own prob­lems, but un­like the All Blacks they are rugby-re­lated: Cap­tain Adri­aan Strauss plays his fi­nal test at home af­ter a sur­prise de­ci­sion to re­tire from in­ter­na­tion­als af­ter just one sea­son in charge, and new coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee is the sub­ject of con­stant scru­tiny for a per­ceived lack of any clear game plan. Coet­zee’s team has lost four of eight tests, in­clud­ing a 41-13 blowout in New Zealand last month.

With that back­ground, South Africa was seen as the team play­ing for pride. But the Smith scan­dal might have given New Zealand a rea­son to feel it needs to re­store its rep­u­ta­tion, and that could pro­voke an ex­tra-pow­er­ful per­for­mance from rugby’s pow­er­house.

Line­ups

Pat Lam­bie, Fran­cois Hougaard, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Al­lende, Bryan Ha­bana, Morne Steyn, Faf de Klerk, War­ren White­ley, Oupa Mo­hoje, Fran­cois Louw, Pi­eter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etze­beth, Vin­cent Koch, Adri­aan Strauss (cap­tain), Tendai Mtawarira.

Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kit­shoff, Ju­lian Redel­inghuys, Lood de Jager, Willem Al­berts, Jaco Kriel, Lionel Mapoe, Willie le Roux.

Ben Smith, Is­rael Dagg, An­ton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Waisake Na­holo, Beau­den Bar­rett, T.J. Per­e­nara, Kieran Read (cap­tain), Matt Todd, Jerome Kaino, Sam White­lock, Brodie Re­tal­lick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody.

Codie Tay­lor, Wy­att Crock­ett, Char­lie Fau­muina, Liam Squire, Ardie Savea, Taw­era Ker­rBar­low, Lima Sopoaga, Ge­orge Moala.

The sus­pen­sion of Aaron Smith seems to be the big­gest ob­sta­cle for this team Photo: AP

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