Australia will surely have ventured to New Zealand with some misgivings after the first round of the Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship last week, for they were well and truly thrashed in Sydney, the final score of 47-29 flattering them somewhat thanks to James O’Connor’s injury-time try.
Admittedly this morning, the All Blacks will be fielding their fourth-choice fly-half, Tom Taylor, who is winning his first cap. However, one of the features of this New Zealand side is the ease and confidence with which new players generally slot into it, and it will have been a surprise if Taylor proves any exception.
The All Blacks looked formidably good in Sydney, even though Australia played better than in any of the three Lions Tests. The lineout was the only area of the game where the Wallabies had the upper hand. Otherwise it was the All Blacks as usual. Richie McCaw, returning from his sabbatical, with only a game-and-a-half as preparation, looked as eager as a youngster, and was as predatory and efficient as ever – even though the referee, Craig Joubert, pipped him a couple of times for the sort of things he usually gets away with.
As ever one is left admiring the sheer efficiency of the All Blacks and wondering what can be learned from them. Jim Telfer always wanted Scotland to try to play like them, and there used to be those who said New Zealanders were Scots who had learned how to win. It was a nice phrase, even though so many All Blacks have more South Seas than Scottish ancestry. But the truth is New Zealand are not only efficient, but play with the sort of flair we can only occasionally hope for.
They have great players of course. Conrad Smith seems to me to rank with Philippe Sella and Brian O’Driscoll as one of the best outside centres of the last 30 years, and his partnership with Ma‘a Nonu is the best in world rugby today. Moreover they seem to have an unstoppable assembly-line of try-scoring wings. The latest is Ben Smith who scored three tries last week, though admittedly the first two didn‘t demand much of him.
What marks out the All Blacks as special is their ability to do everything at pace and with assurance. They almost always clear the ball quickly and cleanly from the tackle point. Whereas we are sadly accustomed to seeing Greig Laidlaw, or any of his scrum-half predecessors, digging the ball out, then trying to produce with the slow ball once the opposition defence is in place, the All Blacks recycle it at speed and are in a position to continue to attack. A few passes go astray of course, but there is almost always someone on hand to clear up the mess or avert the chance of a dangerous counter-attack. In defence they keep calm. There was a telling example in the first half in Sydney. Adam Ashley-Cooper made a splendid clean break through the centre. A try looked to be on, but the All Blacks didn‘t panic, the support couldn‘t reach him, and he was cut down, Australia‘s best chance petering out.
In attack it is very rare to see the All Blacks drifting across field. There is generally someone ready to straighten the line, and when a player makes a break or half-break, he will find someone on either side ready to continue the movement. It’s simple. There’s nothing new or innovative about it. It’s just the way rugby should be played. Then they very rarely kick aimlessly, for want, as it were, of anything better to do, and when they kick high up the middle, the chase is always fast, putting the receiver under immediate pressure. This too is something we should learn from; Scotland’s chasing is at best inconsistent, partly doubtless down to the kick being too short, or, more commonly, too long.
When the All Blacks kick they very seldom offer the opposition space to run the ball back. So they squeeze the other side , repeatedly putting them under pressure.
It‘s possible of course that by the time you read this, Australia will have pulled off what would be a surprising victory. But it seems unlikely. The All Blacks are still the best side in the world, with South Africa their only real challenger for that title. Their demolition of Argentina last week was certainly impressive, but still they are a more limited team than New Zealand. Argentina may do better in the return match at home today, but one rather feels that, as with Italy joining the Six Nations, they have made the Tri-Nations into a four at a time when the team that made the case for their inclusion is breaking up, and there will be a season or two before they have replaced it.