Rugby World Cup 2011

Nervy NZ: Boks won't smirk

2011-09-09 15:16
Alisona Taumalolo (AP Photo)

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – I would be very surprised if the Springboks, probably not too far from televisions for the World Cup opening match in Auckland on Friday, adopted a smug approach to the All Blacks’ relative struggle to subdue Tonga.

If anything, the match at Eden Park only served as sharp confirmation of how tough and uncompromising the Pacific Island teams clearly remain.

And that is significant because if host nation New Zealand could experience some hiccups – not to mention the predictable knocks and bumps – en route to a slightly laboured 41-10 triumph over IRB 12th-ranked Tonga, then there is every likelihood the Boks will encounter stern resistance in their own group, where they must play both Samoa, ranked two places higher than the Tongans, and 15th-placed Fiji.

Also to consider is that although the Tongans had some startling periods of territorial ascendancy in the tournament opener, the All Blacks did still manage to register six tries to one under lights – when conditions in New Zealand are not supposed to especially suit an open brand of play.

It appeared to be a mild evening and there are sure to be occasions, particularly further to the south of the country at this World Cup, when dew and perhaps rain are more influential for night-time kickoffs.

But the message still seemed clear from Richie McCaw’s side: they do intend to stick determinedly to ball-in-hand principles whenever it appears prudent to do so.

They were very compelling in the first half, when they got four of their touchdowns, and Sonny Bill Williams’ magical off-loading skills in midfield came massively to the fore in several of the lead-ups.

It is tempting to make a highly obvious point: tackle him around the arms as spiritedly as you can to try to keep those ever-tricky hands of his “cuffed” … but that is easier said than done, isn’t it, when the man is built like a heavyweight boxer and is a heavyweight boxer!

Still, it was noticeable in the second period, when the Tongans upped their competitiveness and mended their defensive shape to an admirable degree, that the big fellow suddenly stopped having things his own way: he was even spectacularly gang-tackled backwards once near the line when a try to him seemed a fait accompli.

Indeed, the All Blacks’ composure as a whole dismantled at roughly the same time, with some fumbling coming into play, their command and discipline at the breakdown altering for the worse, and even their renowned scrummaging prowess suddenly not looking so smart.

In certain respects this match mirrored the RWC 2007 meeting between South Africa and the Tongans, except that things happened in a rather back-to-front way.

Four years ago, the Boks started with a pretty second-string combination, and found themselves in some angst just beyond the midway point as they went behind 10-7.

But then Jake White famously near-emptied a juggernaut bench in the 46th minute, introducing the likes of Messrs Smit, Matfield, Botha, Habana and Frans Steyn in one go and fortunes quickly turned for South Africa – even if they were still left rather clinging on at the end to the 30-25 score-line in their favour.

On Friday the All Blacks understandably launched the tournament against the same opponents with much more of an “A-team” characteristic, establishing a bridgehead but then losing their shape a bit as various substitutions were made after the break: New Zealand only bossed the second half 12-7 in pure scoreboard terms and that was a fair reflection of the fine Tongan fightback.

This All Blacks team sometimes reminds me of the great Australian Test cricket side of the early 2000s: occasionally so sexy for their own “shirts” in dazzling, up-tempo terms that they encounter a nasty little speed wobble – I can think of a couple of instances where India, for instance, suddenly cashed in on this phenomenon.

It is then that you get the sense McCaw’s troops can become rattled, if you close down their space and time to a decent degree and start nudging them backwards.

Of course the Springboks will hardly be obsessing too much with All Black affairs yet: in the early hours of Saturday morning, early birds in their ranks may well turn a keen eye to Rotorua, and group rivals Fiji’s first RWC game against a Namibian side expected to be the only true easy-beats in the pool …


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