All Blacks show heart to triumph in the wet

By Gregor Paul

New Zealand 22
Australia 16

Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu of the All Blacks walk off after winning the Tri Nations match against Australia. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu of the All Blacks walk off after winning the Tri Nations match against Australia. Photo / Getty Images

It's not going to be an easy business watching the All Blacks this Tri Nations, even if there was much to admire about them last night.

What they showed was ticker - plenty of it - and a tactical awareness that was missing in their earlier tests.

This was no frills - a classic case of playing to the conditions and never forgetting that the visitors are never happy when the sun is not on their backs.

The ball was stuck in the air and the runners asked to chase. Simple but effective stuff and it won the game for a team that was never as composed or as accurate as anyone would like.

There is a frailty to this All Black side; an obvious lack of polish and cohesion and this overwhelming sense that their defence could split at the hint of a dummy.

The opening 20 minutes were a case of shut your eyes and hope that by halftime the damage wasn't too bad.

The All Black lineout was horrible. It was back to the bad old days of the Wallabies stealing ball at their leisure; of the All Blacks possessing a dithering quality that was far from endearing.

At least the retro theme continued at the scrums, too, with Al Baxter done like toast and the Wallabies' confidence sapped by their own inadequacies at such a crucial engagement point. As Baxter's lungs began to heave, the Wallaby scrum became a greater liability than the All Black lineout. That dominance started to translate into territory and possession in the final quarter and the confidence flowed through the All Blacks.

They were tighter in the collisions, more willing to sink the hips and dip the shoulder around the fringes. Jerome Kaino made his presence felt; Keven Mealamu did what he was sent on to do and burrowed low and hard and Brad Thorn, Mr Angry, rummaged around in dark places.

The back-to-basics theme was carried on by the backs, with Jimmy Cowan, then Piri Weepu as well as Stephen Donald opting to cluster bomb the Wallaby back three.

It was brave. It was uncompromising. It was encouraging. Whatever the All Blacks lack in finesse and penetration, they want for nothing in the real currency of test football - commitment, desire and resilience.

The pressure told on the Wallabies. With the rain driving into their faces and the wind gusting, they struggled to get out of their own half and couldn't play the game in places where they were going to score points.

After Donald kicked his fifth penalty to push the All Blacks clear at 22-16, the Wallabies would have cursed two blown opportunities earlier in the game.

They could have even landed a killer blow midway through the first half after Giteau had charged down an attempted grubber by Donald.

If Barnes had passed to Stirling Mortlock, who was charging back on the cut, it might have been curtains for the All Blacks.

As it would have been a few minutes later had Luke Burgess thrown an easy pass instead of a horrible one when there was a four-man overlap down the All Blacks' left flank.

The Wallabies had control, poise and trickery from their two play-makers. The beauty of pairing Giteau with Berrick Barnes was that it gave Australia the capacity to make good decisions phase after phase.

If Giteau was buried at the bottom of the ruck, Barnes went to first receiver and the danger never ended. That's why the Wallabies played with a better rhythm and greater width. When they pushed the ball beyond the heavy traffic clogging up the middle of the pitch, they had the All Blacks scrambling. That was apparent when Barnes coasted in for the opening score. Simply going wide after Adam Ashley-Cooper's break created swathes of space and the second five dummied and disappeared.

The cohesion of Giteau and Barnes was in stark contrast to the All Black 10-12 pairing, which seemed to take on more and more of the characteristics of its surroundings.

Just like the half-built, randomly thrown together Eden Park, Donald and Ma'a Nonu just didn't gel; they didn't fit neatly together and didn't ever win full approval from the residents.

Nonu worked hard to be an influence but there was something not quite right. Donald couldn't bring Nonu into the game at pace. Even a man of Nonu's power isn't going to be able to smash holes if he's static when he takes possession.

Having delivered so much last year, it's starting to be a concern that Nonu has offered so little in 2009. On the hard grounds of South Africa, against a rush defence there might be some value in starting Luke McAlister at second five to see if he can take the All Blacks over the advantage line and keep the ball in front of the forwards.

New Zealand 22 (R. McCaw try; S. Donald con, 4 pens) Australia 16 (B. Barnes try; M. Giteau con, 3 pens).

- Herald on Sunday

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