All Blacks: Quality of leaders makes the difference

By Gregor Paul

The spontaneous eruption of joy from the All Black players said it all. This has been a year of contrast for the national side - one in which they have felt both the depths of despair and the elation that comes with resurrection and success.

When they were so awful in Sydney only the mad and hopelessly loyal could see the silverware staying in Wellington.

Even when they bounced back in Auckland, they were only a little way round the corner. It took another giant effort in Cape Town to really start convincing us they had some ability.

Brisbane was the venue where this All Black side proved they have more than ability - they have a bit of spine, too. They also have a clutch of leaders prepared to impose themselves, to try to make the difference.

In their different ways, Mils Muliaina, Dan Carter, Ali Williams, Rodney So'oialo and Richie McCaw lifted those around them.

Muliaina did his bit with the command in which he attacked the high ball and the authority with which he counter-attacked.

Williams made some thundering tackles, Carter boomed the ball in the right places, kicked some tricky goals and slipped through a lot of tackles.

McCaw was McCaw and then there was So'oialo, one man doing the work of three, his hair flying wildly and that big ticker of his strapped to his sleeve.

All Black wins are too easily taken for granted. The culture of expectation often prevents the full extent of the achievement being appreciated.

It would be criminal to not bask in the full glory of last night's win. The final half hour was as good as it gets. It was the ideal showpiece for test football - no one could ever doubt the integrity of the contest or the commitment of either side.

Everything was on the line and the All Blacks, the side that was exposed as having no leadership at the World Cup, were the ones who thrived under the pressure. Only six weeks ago they cracked horribly under the same pressure and had everyone thinking about 1998 and the dreaded year of five losses on the hoof.

"They scored quickly and from our perspective they scored softly," was Wallaby coach Robbie Deans' assessment of the difference between the two teams in the final half hour.

"From that they got the sense of belief they needed to get home. We are seeking the consistency the All Blacks have. They have this habit of winning these types of games."

His arch-rival, Graham Henry, held much the same view. "I think the game reflected our season," said Henry.

They were down earlier in the year after they lost two games and they showed a lot of guts and character to come back from that.

The All Blacks were down 17-10 at one point and they showed a lot of guts and character to come back from that.

"It was just a sweet feeling. We have won four Tri-Nations titles but this was probably the sweetest because we had a number of new guys who had never played before," said Henry.

Behind closed doors, the All Black coaching panel will be more exuberant in their celebration.

It's not really their style to go overboard in public, but given the pressure they have been under all year, and the criticism they copped mid-way through the campaign, there will be a deep satisfaction with the way the All Blacks have bounced back.

Much of the credit for that revival belongs to the players and particularly the senior players, but the coaching panel have raised their game, too.

Since trying too hard to outfox Deans in Sydney they have hit the right tactical notes and got to grips with the new rules.

They have been helped by a massive contribution from kicking coach Mick Byrne who has managed to improve the collective kicking skills of the backs.

Mike Cron, the doyen of scrum coaching has also, again, worked wonders with a pack that has had to welcome a number of new faces this season.

The All Blacks now have an opportunity to turn 2008 into a year every bit as memorable as 2005 - the year they last embarked upon a Grand Slam tour which is the next challenge for this side.

- NZ Herald

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