Stalemates, cheap shots and poaching
Is there anything less satisfying than a drawn test match?
The All Blacks latest attempt at beating the world record for consecutive test match victories has been halted in most frustrating style by a stalemate in Brisbane.
They were in many ways lucky to escape without defeat and owe that, more than anything, to Australia’s lack of self-belief and in particular Kurtley Beale's abject unwillingness to take a dropped goal when it was on offer in the final stages.
The one admirable thing about the All Blacks' otherwise flatline performance was their refusal to give away a penalty as the Wallabies went 24 phases in possession inside the New Zealand half. It was an incredible display of determination and discipline, attributes that had taken an untimely holiday earlier in the game, when they were rattled into mistakes and repeatedly penalised.
In the end you got the distinct impression the Wallabies wanted Craig Joubert to win the game for them, but once again the South African showed that right now there is none better at keeping his nerve in the boiler-room at the end of a closely fought international.
Beale just kept waving his forwards to go one more phase, one more phase….Mike Harris, their latest imported Kiwi, was clearly willing to have a go, but he too was waved away….and in the end the Wallaby forwards just ran out of steam, flopped over the ball and were rightly penalised.
Richie McCaw then made a courageous decision to call a scrum from the penalty….risky given that the Wallabies had been putting some good pressure on at set piece, but they cleared it, and ended up coming within a whisker of snatching an unlikely win through a Carter drop kick that just sailed wide.
Maybe I’m a Kiwi clutching at straws, but I’d give them some credit too, for at least trying to force a win, rather than have it handed to them, and even if Dan Carter missed, he at least was prepared to shoulder the responsibility for trying to win the game.
That is the mark of a champion….in the same way Michael Jordan was the guy who would more often than not take the ball for the Chicago Bulls on the buzzer. As the great man himself said they missed more than they went in, but at least he was always prepared to take the shot.
But that rather courageous last five minutes doesn’t really make up for the other 75.
The Wallabies were in no mood for another defeat (having lost eight of their last 10 against the ABs) and put up a good fight, but the All Blacks were flat, lacking rhythm and flow and generally looking a shadow of the team that had played so well over the latter stages of the Rugby Championship.
It just shows how hard it is to keep playing at peak performance in these times when teams play so often against other top nations.
Their build-up hadn’t been great, with Steve Hansen’s father dying early in the week, but their motivation was powerful, wanting to do it for their coach, and for Keven Mealamu in his 100th test…although that 100 test thing can be a bit of a curse…..ask Percy Montgomery and John Smit!
Perhaps this All Black team isn’t as good as some were starting to think? That’s a question they will need to answer on the forthcoming northern tour.
The bitterness that exists between the two countries erupted after the test, with Hansen firing a couple of shots at the Aussies.
One was aimed at Scott Higginbotham, who underlined his growing reputation as a cheap shot merchant and a player wasting his outstanding physical credentials on trying to be some kind of low rent enforcer.
Again the target was Richie McCaw, who was kneed in the face and then given one of those headbutts that’s not exactly life threatening, but still a headbutt.
People can go on all they like about what McCaw does in and around the limit of the laws, but no player in this day and age should be allowed to get away with Higginbotham did, and in essentially giving him a one-match ban for the knee and one for the headbutt, the judiciary has again been made to look spineless.
(On that note I watched the recent Bulls-Sharks game and must say I quite like the trial system of referring instances of alleged foul play directly to the TMO….It puts pressure on the TMO for sure, but if it had been in operation at Brisbane Higginbotham would have been red carded)
Hansen also fired a shot at Australia for “poaching” Kiwi players, after former New Zealand under-20 star Mike Harris landed five penalties out of five.
It was not a wise comment from Hansen in the circumstances, inviting howls of righteous indignation and pointing of fingers at the massive Pacific Islands influence on the All Blacks in recent years.
I have made my feelings clear on this issue in the past and have no desire to go through it again….people believe what they want to believe but I will say this - there is a difference between what New Zealand has done and what Australia is doing.
New Zealand has of course availed itself of both Pacific Islands born talent, and players of PI descent born in NZ. The vast majority of these players have been nurtured in the New Zealand system and ultimately have a choice of who they play for. Far more New Zealand born players have appeared for Pacific Island nations than the other way round and I know of not one player who was “lured” from the islands with the express purpose of him playing for New Zealand.
What Australia is doing is wooing promising, aspiring professional players from South Africa, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and even the UK by offering them contracts, but on the condition that they commit their future to Australia.
This is all being done in an effort to boost their depth, and fill out the ranks of five Super Rugby franchises they can scarcely justify…..promising Wellington players Scott Fuglistaller and Jason Woodward and Auckland’s Hadleigh Parkes are the latest examples.
Hansen had a point…it just would have been better made some time other than straight after a test match against Australia that they did not win…..even if Australia didn’t either.