Boks zero in on Tri-Nations
All Blacks and Wallabies look to returnees for a change in fortune
KEY personnel changes, coupled with a chance to reflect, should see New Zealand and Australia both wise up and toughen up for the remaining part of the Tri-Nations, but it is going to require an unlikely brain explosion for the Springboks to fail in their quest for the title.
Hostilities resume after this bye weekend when the Wallabies and All Blacks clash in Sydney next Saturday.
All Black coach Graham Henry has been coy this week about Dan Carter’s chances of playing, but the world’s best flyhalf has played three comeback matches now following his return from a long injury lay-off.
According to most reports, he was heading back to his best form in the last match he played, for Canterbury against Auckland, so the smart money should be either on Carter wearing the No 10 jersey next week, or fitting in alongside Stephen Donald as the inside centre.
No-one in the All Black camp has suggested this latter option, but backline coach Wayne Smith did mention when in South Africa that the All Black management were impressed with the Donald/Carter flyhalf/inside centre configuration when they tried it in the last 20 minutes of a match against Australia last year.
For all his forcefulness and ability to dominate the gainline, Ma’a Nonu lacks the subtleties of the type of inside centre that New Zealand have tended to have in position during their more successful runs.
For that, read Aaron Mauger, who started out as a flyhalf but was forced to morph into a No 12 at the Crusaders because of the presence of first Andrew Mehrtens and then Carter.
Having Carter and Donald playing together would of course help iron out one of the two big weaknesses of an All Black team that was rated by many as easily the worst to visit South Africa in the post-isolation era. They had no kicking game to speak of, and it contributed to the suicidal rugby they played.
If the return of Carter, regardless of where he plays, could help New Zealand in the territory battle – he won the Tri-Nations for them last year – the other weakness is less easy to paper over.
For as much as Carter has been missed, so has Ali Williams (injured), Carl Hayman (playing overseas) and Jerry Collins (retired last year).
The pre-tournament predictions were that the All Blacks might find they lacked grunt up front, and those predictions proved horribly accurate for the Kiwis, who were smashed in the physical battle by the Springboks.
And it doesn’t help that after five years they appear no closer to solving he riddle of the Bok lineout.
So while New Zealand’s chances of retaining the Tri-Nations title should not be written off as they have two home games to look forward to after Sydney, it is hard to see how they can turn around the forward dominance the Boks enjoyed in Bloemfontein and Durban.
Australia have lost Stirling Mortlock, who will be missed for both his leadership and the thrust he brings to the backs from his position at outside centre.
Where the Wallabies should be better though is at forward now that they are set to recall the mongrel of Rocky Elsom. The blindside flanker was ruled out by injury from the first two matches but he is set to return in Sydney. The Wallabies will hope he can make good their shortfall in physicality, which is something they always talk a lot about but seldom deliver.
The Wallabies could still be more dangerous to the Bok title aspirations than the All Blacks, for they showed glimpses in Cape Town of being able to blunt the Bok strengths.
And you can assume they would have learned something from the success they achieved with their strict emphasis on a territory game in the early stages of the second half in order to survive the period that they were playing 13 men against 15.
It was simple stuff from the Wallabies, just kicking the ball into the corners, but it worked wonders as it kept the Boks scoreless during a period when they should have been dominating.
From a South African viewpoint it should be hoped that those 10 minutes provided a timely reminder of the folly of reverting to the script that sunk them in this competition 12 months ago. After playing with great structure and control and a big emphasis on territory for most of the first half, the Boks became too frenetic when they saw the Wallabies had been reduced to 13 men.
Instead of maintaining control, they tried to run from everywhere, and it was as though they had stepped into a time machine and been transported back to last year.
It was interesting to see that Heyneke Meyer, who as former coach of the Bulls is as much the architect of the current Bok way of playing as Jake White, criticised the Boks for losing control and structure in that period. In his view the Boks would have put the Aussies away had they retained their structure, and he is probably right.
Not that Bok leader John Smit needs to be told this, and the wisdom of Smit remains the single biggest reason why we should expect the Boks to do more than just the necessary on the overseas leg.
White is right when he says they should be doing more with the ball when in the right field positions, but the punishment endured by both the All Blacks and Aussies in terms of South African penalty kicks over the past fortnight tells us everything we need to know about the folly of trying to play in your own half.
The All Blacks did score a 95-metre try off a quick throw-in in Durban, but they gave away far more points through their policy of running from everywhere than they scored.
Apart from the Jaque Fourie try in Bloemfontein which came off a turnover courtesy of a Kiwi mistake when chasing the game, the tries in this year’s competition have conformed to the stats from the Super 14, which told us that just 6% of them came off moves that originated in the scoring team’s half.
The Boks are too experienced now and too clever to ignore those stats, and they also have the most gifted trio of field kickers in the competition, which is why space needs to be made now at the SA Rugby headquarters for the Tri-Nations trophy which is headed this way next month.
BALL-WISE: Daniel Carter could be called on to remedy the All Blacks’ kicking woes.
BALL-BESERK: Rocky Elsom’s role will be to put the ‘mongrel’ back in the Wallabies’ pack.