All Blacks: Sivivatu ups the ante for wingers

By Gregor Paul

Sitiveni Sivivatu was in fine form for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Sitiveni Sivivatu was in fine form for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

Confidence won't necessarily be flowing after Friday's All Black performance but there was at least the satisfaction of seeing a number of key players gradually make their mark.

No one was more explosive or hungrier than Sitiveni Sivivatu, whose 55 minutes will have gone some way to extending his stay of execution. His dynamism and energy might have been enough to win him another start against South Africa in Wellington.

And how the selectors will enjoy that. Sivivatu is a man in whom they retain enormous faith. Assistant coach Wayne Smith has described the Chiefs wing as one of the best tactical brains in world rugby and there is no doubt that at his best, Sivivatu is capable of scoring tries no other wing in the country could.

His lack of conditioning and form was painful viewing earlier in the season. When he didn't really respond to a frank and honest assessment of his work midway through the season, the coaching panel were left with little choice but to pick Zac Guildford ahead of him.

Injuries to Isaia Toeava and Israel Dagg enabled Sivivatu to cling on - named as an asterisk; temporary cover while the walking wounded were out of action. His hold is less tenuous now and the All Blacks will be better for it.

Guildford was tidy as always on Friday night but his footwork wasn't sharp enough to take him through holes. Much of his possession was taken tight to the touchline - territory in which only world-class wings can really shine. It takes electric pace, elusive dancing steps or just brute strength to beat opponents between the tramlines and there is a sense Guildford might never be that type of wing.

In his favour is his ability to attack the ball in the air and pop up in the midfield to maintain the continuity. With Hosea Gear expected to be fit this week and Cory Jane also a possibility to be available after dislocating his finger, selecting the back three might be the toughest challenge.

The Boks are likely to kick plenty of ball in the air and the All Blacks will need a mix of solidity and magic in their back three to ensure they are defensively accurate and then capable of taking whatever half opportunities come their way.

"I thought Sitiveni Sivivatu was the best player on the field in the first half," said coach Graham Henry.

The other tough call to be made will be in the midfield. Ma'a Nonu was relatively subdued in Dunedin - being particularly well marshalled by a concerted and impressive Fijian defensive effort.

The Boks will be tougher again - likely to push the offside line and generate impressive line-speed as they always do. The rush defence will be their best form of attack in Wellington and the All Blacks may be interested in seeing how Sonny Bill Williams performs when faced with a flying green wall.

He handled himself superbly against the Stormers' Springbok midfield of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie in both the Super Rugby round-robin and semifinal but test football, even though the Boks are weakened, is different again.

For all the composure and skill of Williams, he has never played a Tri Nations test. This dilemma - Williams or Nonu - will be the question that won't go away this season and whatever is decided this week, there will need to be careful management of egos. Both men want to start - neither feels they are right to come off the bench, although they will do what they can should that be their fate.

Nonu never had the space he would have liked, largely because the work at the breakdown in front of him was not as accurate or ruthless as it needed to be.

Nor were the All Blacks able to reap the full benefits of their scrum dominance. That part of the game fell into farcical territory, with the Fijians unable to hold their side up.

"We will have to increase the intensity and accuracy against South Africa," said Henry. "But I think we are in a good place to step up from here. A number of individuals played well and we played well in patches.

"We had moments where we didn't execute very well but I think that is understandable."

The ultimate highlight of the win was that all 22 players escaped without damage."

- Herald on Sunday

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