All Black tempo just too fast?
Well, well … what a change from one week to the next.
There we all were, spellbound by the All Blacks’ majestic 49-28 destruction of the Wallabies in the Tri-Nations Test in Melbourne less than two weeks ago, and even prepared to laud the losing outfit for their role in a high-speed rollercoaster ride.
After all, it’s not every day you witness a 10-try feast – even if the breakdown was a rather lopsided 7-3 in favour of Richie McCaw’s side – in any Test match featuring two of the planet’s leading powers.
Somehow the New Zealand performance, in particular, seemed to take rugby to exciting new levels, and as South Africans we were entitled to crank up further our nervousness about prospects of retaining the “Webb Ellis” next year … whatever the argument about the All Blacks traditionally peaking between rather than at World Cups.
I don’t know about you, but I started to breathe a little more easily after watching the immediate follow-up encounter between the Antipodean foes in Christchurch on Saturday.
In cricketing parlance, it was a little like watching a sixes-laden Twenty20 encounter the one week and then a tepid, five-day Test snore-draw on a heartless featherbed the next.
The return match, you see - which the All Blacks duly closed out professionally 20-10, let it be said - carried so little of the sparkle and dizzying pace that had marked the previous meeting.
Interestingly, it did start in a pretty similar, frenetic manner, with three tries comfortably within the first quarter of play … but then none more for the remaining hour-plus as the script seemed to lose its sting, and then some.
Just as tellingly, I thought, the legs of many of the participants seemed to “go” remarkably early.
There were players from both sides, and especially among the forwards, with their hands on their knees as early as the 20th minute, and general precision and slickness seemed to vanish thereafter with the proverbial bath water.
What we did get, it is true, was a demonstration by the All Blacks that their defensive shape and commitment has also come together again: the Wallabies bossed possession for much of the remainder of the contest but just could not punch meaningful holes, could they?
Chris Rattue put it fairly succinctly in the New Zealand Herald: “We should have been on the edge of our seats on Saturday, but as the drudgery wore on, the footrest came out and headrest eased into recliner mode.
“The Test match started out like the perfect poster for modern rugby, Southern Hemisphere style, yet went belly-up quicker than a Fancy Dan clothes shop in Newmarket.”
I couldn’t help wondering whether the All Blacks are sometimes just too good for themselves. (Or read: play with such panache and turbo-thrust one week that they are simply unable to sustain such heights the next.)
Think about it. In Melbourne there were jaw-dropping passages where the ball just did not go out of play, which went a long way to explaining why so many tries were scored.
And I almost suspected New Zealand redoubled their resolve to take quick throw-ins and then spin the ball from deep within their own territory, on the grounds of their traumas at the set lineout last year. (Although these have gone some way down the road to eradication anyway.)
The All Blacks are great global crowd-pleasers, and all praise to them for that, but could it just be that their expansive playing style from virtually all areas of the park -- geared toward a minimum of stoppages and maximum use of the space between the white lines to move the ball swiftly among hands up-field -- sometimes creeps up and bites them on their own bums?
Their players from one to 15 look extremely well-conditioned at present, but it is difficult not to suspect, all the same, that the “non-stop” style they favour must take an occasional toll on a few tight forwards, in particular.
More than any other modern international team, the New Zealanders are the likeliest to run opponents -- either top-tier or minnow – ragged on a good day.
They tend to exhibit this trend in the early stages of World Cups, where they have a very well-developed reputation for running up cricket scores in the group stage while similar-strength counterparts like the Boks may prevail in a slightly “uglier” or at least less flamboyant style.
But come the key knockout phase, of course, and it is almost as if the All Blacks suddenly run out of puff, famously coming an unexpected cropper somewhere ahead of the final, which they haven’t visited since 1995 at Ellis Park.
I pose the question once more: is New Zealand’s high-tempo, dash-from-all-angles approach subconsciously their own worst enemy, drip-feeding a gradual element of fatigue?
Oh yes, and while this should not be viewed as any special confidence on my part of a Springbok win, I am mightily interested to see whether the All Blacks can repeat their sustained Melbourne fluidity in the thin Highveld air next weekend if they do opt for a similarly cavalier playing style …
Rob is Sport24's chief writer
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