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Peter Bills is a rugby writer and commentator

Peter Bills: Is Muliaina the All Black weak link?

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Mils Muliaina is not, as yet, demonstrating the verve or danger that hallmarked his game last season. Photo / Getty Images
Mils Muliaina is not, as yet, demonstrating the verve or danger that hallmarked his game last season. Photo / Getty Images

Call it churlish, if you wish, or blinkered partisanship if you must. But the fact is, there were areas of the All Blacks game against South Africa last weekend that still need polishing ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

When you are shooting for the stars you can never be satisfied just to reach the sky. We can be sure that the three wise men, aka the All Blacks coaching triumvirate, are not men prone to premature celebration.

To win any game by six tries to one is a huge encouragement. But only by setting standards that are close to the stratosphere can sports teams truly deliver. They may not quite hit the peak every time but if they are trained to aim that high often enough they should perform at a pretty lofty level.

Mils Muliaina did not have a bad game against the South Africans' apology for a Test team in Wellington. He dealt competently with the ball whenever it found him, carried it back efficiently enough and covered diligently, albeit without ever really being seriously tested.

Such was the nature of a totally one-sided contest.

Yet Muliaina is not, as yet, demonstrating the verve or danger that hallmarked his game last season. He is certainly not re-producing the kind of imperious form which both he and his back-up, Israel Dagg, showed at times for the All Blacks in last season's successful Tri-Nations campaign.

As both men showed last year, few positions on the field have benefited more from the new law interpretations than the full-back. Hitherto forced to return hopeful punts downfield with largely aimless kicks of his own, thanks to the suffocating and rapidly approaching defensive line, the potential now offered to the full-back with the brio to attack is considerable.

He is enticed with both greater space and the benefits of keeping the ball in hand. Of course, any full-back about to attack an encroaching defensive line needs to be sure he has sufficiently fast back row men to help him when he does go into the tackle situation. But with the All Blacks, that is a given.

Yet Muliaina has not yet reached the peak of his counter attacking game of last year. He is taking the ball up but without quite the electrifying speed or imagination that made his play in this respect so dangerous to opponents last year. He is not cutting the angles of yesteryear.

Nor is he offering himself enough, in my view, as an attacking option off first or second phase possession. Even if the full-back does not actually touch the ball in an attack, he can cause immense damage to a defence solely by a subtle piece of decoy running. If a defence spies Dan Carter running left on the arc and Muliaina coming urgently on the switch to the right, it is a nailed-on bet that some defenders will hesitate, expecting the change of angle in the attack.

Even if it is a bogus run, that can tie up a couple of defenders.

For me, the No.15 coming late, at pace into the attacking line especially off third, fourth or fifth phase possession against a rapidly tiring defence can cause huge damage. Dagg illustrated this point beautifully with his surge through a tiring South African defence to score the All Blacks' crucial third try in their 29-22 win over the Springboks in Soweto last August.

True ,Dagg had replaced a wing, Joe Rokocoko with 22 minutes left. But with his full-back instinct and eye for an opportunity to find space in the defensive alignment, Dagg broke through for the crucial score. He did that many times last season and although other parts of his game may not yet match those overall of Muliaina, hence the latter's status as first choice for the All Blacks, Dagg has immense potential going forward.

The possibilities for the full-back in attacking play are endless. He can run back kicks downfield and make decoy runs to 'hold' the defence and sow uncertainty. Or he can pick his place to make an insertion into the back line - at outside centre, the usual place, in support of the wing or even on the shoulder of the first five-eight.

Taking the ball up at pace, with proper momentum, is the key. A strong, unexpected surge can create a hole in close or out wide that others with the invention and attacking nous of this All Blacks back line can exploit.

It would appear a certainty that the All Blacks coaches, whilst preaching correct judgement as to exactly when their No. 15 launches himself into the line or makes a run, have backed the player's right to search for such attacking opportunities.

Yet so far this season, for whatever reason, Muliaina has fallen short of last year's highs. It is important he re-discovers them before the World Cup begins.

For the All Blacks, as they showed against the Springboks last weekend, already possess myriad attacking options down the back line. Add on a lethal, fast counter attacking or running full-back who is cutting all sorts of clever angles with or without the ball and you have a crucial extra attacking weapon in your armoury.

Being somewhat disingenuous, someone perhaps like Cory Jane whose running was so lethal against the Springboks?

Peter Bills is a rugby writer for Independent News & Media in London

- NZ Herald

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