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Truth or Dare: Hansen’s Poker Face May Come Undone

October 21, 2017

Finally, after the Rugby Championship has concluded and they went through it undeservedly unbeaten, the All Blacks came a cropper against a determined Australian outfit this afternoon at a Suncorp stadium that belied its name. Brisbane has so far been the most difficult place for recent All Black teams to tour, with their results being less than fashionable against the Wallabies at the venue. And with the conditions being as you may expect in Dunedin, Wellington or Glasgow the going was only going to be tougher.

It was to be Stephen Moore’s last game on Australian soil. The former captain will not be part of Australia’s World Cup bid. The 125 test veteran deserved a win over the old enemy and he, together with the rest of his Wallaby team, will savour this win for many months. If Michael Cheika can stay focused, another win may not be too far away. That Australia won this test match cannot be argued, as opposed to New Zealand losing it. The Australians led at the start, trailed by one at half time and dominated the breakdown to lead at the death when it mattered. Reece Hodge relieved the stuttering Foley of the kicking duties and knocked over the five points that eventually mattered, three of them from 53m out.

This loss was a long time coming though. The All Blacks should, ideally, have lost more games in the rugby championship. Their blushes were saved only by some outlandish skills and finishing from the likes of Havili, Barrett and MacKenzie. But that’s not how the All Blacks will be wanting to win games, especially not in long campaigns like a World Cup where luck tends to even itself out and one bad day is enough to spell disaster. They cannot rely therefore, on the flash. They have to rely on the steady. The basics. The things they do better than anyone else, so that the marauding finishers can actually finish.

During this tournament, and the third Bledisloe test, the All Blacks have made a habit of camouflaging their weaknesses to the uninitiated. While fans rave about Barrett’s no-look, behind the back flick to Nehe Milner-Skudder against South Africa, the fly half will know that he only cut in to make the conversion easier. When he found he’d made the wrong decision, instead of finishing easily on the outside, he threw the pass to avoid being chased down by Jesse Kriel. It was a high risk manoeuvre that was unnecessary, uncommunicated and fuelled by insecurity of his placed kicking. The fans rave at how skilled his is, and everything is right with the world. They can’t see the enemy beyond the wall. However, the Northern Hemisphere coaches are hardly blinkered fans. They know where the chinks lie and they will attack them like hyenas. They will also take heart from the Lion’s performance and adopt the strangulation formula which worked so well in the tests, the Maori All Black test and against the Crusaders, on that tour. Barrett, MacKenzie and Moanga were made to look ordinary in the face of the Lions’ defensive line speed. Coupled with uncertainty in midfield and the jury still out on SBW, the NZRFU’s expensive experiment, things are not looking as chill as Steve Hansen’s unflappable countenance would suggest.

With Ben Smith on concussion probation and being given a sabattical, so that the Blacks don’t haemorrhage talent like Cruden, Fekitoa and Carl Hayman before them, the back three is a huge worry for Hansen. Jordie Barrett is injured and Damien MacKenzie is just not looking like a worthy replacement for Dagg or Smith. He is brilliant in the broken field aspect of the game as his lateral step around the flailing South African defence showed. However, the diffusion of bombs under pressure, and providing that aura of solidity, while at the same time sparking counter attacks seems a lot to expect from him in a short time. Israel Folau exposed Naholo for the hesitant defender he is and McKenzie made three tackles in a game where the All Blacks missed 26 in total. One was the tackle that Korobiete fell over in for his try. If that doesn’t show his inability to defend the correct channels, I don’t know what does. Add to that the fact that the entire back three for Australia scored and Reiko Ioane made zero tackles, you have to ask yourself whether this unit was ad hoc. I hope it was.

Add Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino to this forward pack and the All Blacks will not suffer a possession reversal of 57 to 43, and neither will they concede the breakdown battle in the way they did. Sam Cane infringed as often as he did because he was the only one really defending. He made 27 tackles. Gave away one silly penalty and knocked on the last possession. But he made 27 tackles. Liam Squire is a good player. But he’s no Jerome Kaino. What this proves is that the All Blacks are a couple of injuries away from being completely without match-winning options. Retallick, Kaino, Cane, Read, Crotty and Smith are irreplaceable at the moment. That’s right, irreplaceable. The going is such that at the moment you take one or two of those players out of the mix and the Blacks look vulnerable. Given the scars of having to dig so deep into the fly-half pocket in 2011, Hansen would do well to remember that squads win World Cups and not just good first xv’s. And at the moment he doesn’t have one.

In midfield, there is cover. Crotty and Williams, together with Laumape, Lienert-Brown, Moala and Goodhue can all deliver some good combinations, with the latter in particular being really impressive. However, Hansen’s insistence on the battering-ram Laumape option is puzzling. Crotty is the best decision-maker on the field and should be closer to the ball. We haven’t seen the All Blacks create tries this season. Most have come from good defensive turnovers, counter attack and brilliant individualism. The team tries that we have come to expect from them have been few and far between, proving that their combinations are not right. It’s been two years since the last World Cup where Hansen lost some of the best players of this generation. They can hardly be replaced. Ironically though, the best of those players, McCaw, Carter and Conrad Smith (not necessarily in that order) have adequate replacements in Cane, Barrett and Goodhue. Like for like.

Inexplicably though Hansen has departed – in un-All Black like fashion – from what works for him. Good players who do the basics well, do not take undue risks and have the intelligence and selflessness to make their team mates better. Conrad – despite not being the biggest or fastest player on the pitch – was famed for not making mistakes. His contributions were always telling if not always noticed. And as a defender he was unparalleled in his positioning and execution. Ryan Crotty is a similar player. Unspectacular but solid, selfless and an excellent decision maker. His Crusaders partner Goodhue is the same. So was Aaron Cruden, who was told he was surplus. The rest of the new breed though, the backline Barretts, Laumape, Havili and MacKenzie are not of that ilk. They are more from the Carlos Spencer mould. And we all know what Carlos Spencer can do to a World Cup campaign. It would seem the All Blacks have not learned from the Luke McAlister saga. Flash players don’t win you trophies that matter.

Let’s not put too fine a point on this. The last few months saw the British and Irish Lions become only the second touring party not to lose against the All Blacks in New Zealand. The only match the Kiwis looked comfortable in was the one that Aaron Cruden ran from fly-half. There’s a lesson there somewhere if Wayne Smith can get his successors to see it. Despite their one-eyed crassness (which they think passes off as humour) the Australian commentators did use one word to describe Kurtely Beale’s afternoon. They said he’s better when he ‘underplays’ instead of trying to do too much. We’d have to agree. Hopefully, the current All Black crop will learn as Beale has done.

 

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