All Blacks: Little to celebrate in lacklustre win

By Gregor Paul

New Zealand 27 Italy 6

With the country deep in recession, farmers' pay-outs dropping to levels that for once makes their moaning legitimate, the All Blacks have a duty in this time of need to warm the cockles of a nation's heart.

Everyone is in dire need of some reason to feel good about life and the All Blacks failed again to provide it.

What they actually did was add to the burden. Is it not enough that the nation has to fret about how the mortgage is going to be paid? Apparently not. Now New Zealanders have to lie awake at night wondering just how it is the All Blacks have transformed into some bungling version of their former selves.

They beat Italy - of course they did. But Scotland can beat Italy. It was the performance that was all important and we didn't get one.

Luke McAlister had the most awkward opening 40 minutes and it was hard not to pine for Stephen Donald. The forwards danced around each other. There wasn't much in the way of conflict - it was more like watching a hospital matron fuss around the fringes, needlessly turning sheets and tucking in corners.

There needed to be blood and guts, some bodies flying in for the cause.

It never came. The All Blacks wanted to play pass and dash and, presumably in an attempt to play their way into form ahead of the Tri Nations, they played most of their football inside their own 22.

Must be that memories aren't that long within the camp as when they played a similar style last year in Sydney, they came horribly unstuck. Still, their attempts to run from deep were more convincing than their kicking game which was vague.

Back into vogue was the chip over the top which, as always, provided no return. When they tried to bang it long, the accuracy disappeared and for long periods the game was truly dire.

The Italians would have loved it, though. What they didn't want to face was the full wrath of an All Black pack taking them on at set piece and around the fringes. They didn't want the game to have a varied tempo as it's much easier to defend the All Blacks when they try to run before they have shown that they have mastered walking.

The lateral movement the All Blacks gorged on last night made life easy for Italy. They could close down the space, swarm from the outside in and douse the fires before they got going.

What should be of most concern to the coaching panel is that it took the All Blacks more than 30 minutes to build something tangible. A few direct drives by the forwards had the Italian defence pedalling backwards and with the pitch opened up, McAlister cross-kicked for Joe Rokocoko to score his first test try since the World Cup.

A second burst of co-ordinated activity led to Isaac Ross scoring his first test try as the game reached the final quarter and it was then that a little bit more went right for the home side.

Ross made a spectacular run after his second-row partner attempted what will surely be his first and last grubber kick in a test match. George Whitelock was able to carry it on to snatch a debut try and push the scoreboard into face-saving territory.

But other than Jerome Kaino, who put himself about - albeit from mainly offside positions - there wasn't actually much face-saving.

The handling was sloppy and the support work lethargic. The lines of attack weren't clever and an inordinate number of high-risk passes were made that didn't deliver a return.

McAlister spilled two high balls in a row; Ma'a Nonu was careless in contact several times and under no pressure, Isaia Toeava put down a simple pass late in the game because he was looking at the opposition and not the ball.

Without a massive improvement, the All Blacks will be stony last in the Tri Nations. The return of Richie McCaw will obviously give them a huge lift and they have to hope that Rodney So'oialo has clicked back into form and that Sitiveni Sivivatu can add some spark ...

But with the return of their senior pros, this All Black side still looks vulnerable.

If things seem gloomy now, wait and see how bad they are when the country has to deal with crowing Australians.

New Zealand 27 (J. Rokocoko; I. Ross; G. Whitelock tries; L. McAlister 3 cons, 2 pens), Italy 6 (L. McLean 2 pens).

- Herald on Sunday

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