How to down the All Blacks

2012-12-08 00:00

RICHIE McCaw’s remarkable world champions were soaring with the eagles and looking for the perfect game at Twickenham to round off their record-breaking and unbeaten year.

But England, desperate to atone for defeats against Australia and South Africa, had their feet firmly planted in the ground as they provided an object lesson on how to down the mighty All Blacks.

The weekend Test at Twickers in many ways resembled the Springboks’ Rugby Championship international against New Zealand in Dunedin in September.

The Springbok forwards on that day — just as England did on Saturday evening — smothered the All Black forwards and cut down their backs behind the gainline, breaking New Zealand’s momentum and flow of possession.

In both Dunedin and Twickenham, the sublime skills of the All Blacks went missing when they were playing rugby on their heels and had lost their shape.

The difference between the two Tests was obvious. England flourished and finished the job by taking their scoring chances for a famous 38-21 victory. In Dunedin, as McCaw admitted later, the All Blacks were only kept in the game — and finally won 21-11 — by the South Africans’ inability to turn pressure into points.

The Boks missed seven attempts at goal, butchered three genuine try-scoring chances, and Ruan Pienaar and Morné Steyn, playing to instructions, booted away a mountain of possession.

They also had prop Dean Greyling on the South African bench and he turned in a man-of-the-match performance for the All Blacks in the final quarter.

The All Blacks, whether it was complacency or fatigue, were as vulnerable in London as they were in Dunedin. While they were able to escape the Boks’ clutches, they failed on Saturday because flyhalf Owen Farrell kicked his goals and then, in a flurry of second-half scoring, England showed precision and accuracy to score three tries.

The pressure exerted by the England pack and the defensive speed off the line of their backs hustled even Dan Carter into error, and the All Blacks seldom had any attacking rhythm. It is a recipe for victory that past Bok teams have used against New Zealand.

McCaw was expected to sail off on his six-month sabbatical this week, satisfied with a job exceedingly well done and on the back of a resounding win at Rugby’s HQ. Instead, the record defeat by England, the second worst in New Zealand history, will nag and nag away at him.

The delightful irony is that the talk in the build-up to the weekend Test was whether these All Blacks, unbeaten in 20 Tests, were the greatest team of all time.

Former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick had described the current crop as “one of the great sides”.

“They are trying to play the perfect game — they want to take it to a new level.”

But that is the beauty of sport. Just when it seems so boringly predictable, and a result inevitable, some team or someone will stand up and bite champions on the bum.

The Proteas’ grim, white-knuckled struggle for survival in the Adelaide Test gives way to a rousing, record 309-run win in Perth for a second series triumph in Australia.

And England, vulnerable, limited England, playing to a sceptical crowd, and after losing to battle-fatigued Australia and South Africa, take chunks out of the seemingly invincible New Zealanders.

Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to the Rugby World Cup title last year, said that the challenge for England now was to keep winning against less distinguished opposition. “It is now about winning the games that they are meant to win,” he said.

“When you win games that you aren’t meant to win, it is because you have no expectation, no pressure and you play with no worries. You just go out and play and it is easier.

“There is more pressure playing a game that you are expected to win than one when you are not expected to win.”

John Plumtree and his heavily favoured Sharks, upstaged by the young Western Province outfit in the Currie Cup final in Durban in October, will endorse that view.

We all know that the All Blacks will be back and they remain the team to beat on the world stage. But we saw on Saturday evening that the most skilled, confident team can struggle when on the back foot. It was England’s accurate, aggressive rugby, free of all the frills, which brought the high-flying All Blacks roughly to earth.

Current New Zealand coach Steve Hansen had feared that his players might believe their own press.

“It’s for other people to judge whether we are the greatest team or not — or if we are a great team,” Hansen said on the eve of the Twickenham Test.

“I don’t think you can put that title on anyone. You can strive to be perfect, but in my time on the planet, I’ve never seen anything perfect.”

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will take enormous confidence from England’s success and the style of rugby they played in reducing the rugby gods of New Zealand, even Carter and McCaw, to mere mortals.

The Springboks are certainly developing a pack that will bother the All Blacks, while their defence, as captain Jean de Villiers has pointed out, is arguably the most effective in world rugby. It is just those tasty bits in between, the sharp attacking finish, that is missing.

Meyer has already hinted at what he would like for Christmas. Top of his wish list, and one likely to be granted, is for scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and centre Jaque Fourie to return from Japan.

He desperately needs a strong scrummager at tighthead as back-up to Jannie du Plessis and he is looking forward to having Bismarck du Plessis, Bryan Habana, Frans Steyn, Schalk Burger and perhaps even Juan Smith back to full fitness. They will provide him with valuable experience, beef up his front-row and provide the backline with attacking options.

And, if wife Linda — or one of his three sons — could pop the latest edition of How to Score Tries and Influence People into Heyneke’s Christmas stocking, then the new year could be a prosperous and enjoyable one for the Springboks … and all who sail with them.

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