Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Reserves lack game-breaker

Is Toeava the clear-headed decision-maker the ABs will need if things go wrong? Photo / Greg Bowker
Is Toeava the clear-headed decision-maker the ABs will need if things go wrong? Photo / Greg Bowker

Among the many defining images of the last World Cup disaster, the one perhaps readily forgotten was that of Aaron Mauger and Doug Howlett distraught in the stands.

Those two experienced and gifted men didn't make the All Black bench for the quarter-final against France - a decision that came to haunt the selectors in the closing stages.

Having found themselves 20-18 behind with 12 minutes left and Dan Carter having limped off, the All Blacks had little experience or firepower on their bench to turn the game.

When they needed something extra, they didn't have anyone to provide it.

The calmness of Howlett would have been invaluable - instead Isaia Toeava came on and memorably spilled his first possession.

Mauger, so composed and mature, would almost certainly have taken control, pushed himself into first receiver and demanded the forwards take him into drop goal territory.

A weak bench hurt the All Blacks four years ago and, looking at today's line-up, there isn't necessarily reason to be confident it won't happen again.

The pressure will be on to have the Pumas dusted down and put back in their box by 65 minutes. The All Blacks can't afford to let this game go down to the wire. If the Pumas are still in the contest after 70 minutes, things could become uncomfortable for the All Blacks.

Fatigue and injury could leave them badly under-powered when they need to be at their ruthless best. What if Sonny Bill Williams is lost early, or Colin Slade?

Into the fray will come Toeava again - a player of enormous potential but yet to convince in his 35-test career. Under pressure, with the game on the line, is Toeava the clear-headed decision-maker the All Blacks will need?

What if Cruden is sent to the fore? He's another raw talent with considerable ability to orchestrate an effective running game from the All Blacks. But knockout football, particularly against the Pumas, is unlikely to be an open and expansive affair.

It is imperative the All Blacks can execute a high quality kicking game - putting it high and long if required - and they have to be able to get out of their own territory.

Cruden hasn't played for five weeks and hasn't been able to convince before that he has the length or ability to strike long with his weaker foot. Cruden, though, is the only option the All Blacks have.

To worry about the bench is not so much the choice of the pessimist but that of the realist. Knockout rugby is a curious business that rarely runs to form or plan. No one really noticed the bench in Cardiff four years ago until it was too late. It's always best to plan for the worst case and be aware that teams playing the All Blacks are capable of finding the most extraordinary depths of character.

The Pumas, like France, are an emotional team. The longer they stay in the contest, the better they become. If they are not subdued and sorted early ... they could become a major problem.

"I think they will be very competitive," said Graham Henry of the Pumas. "They always give France a good game, don't they? I think they have won more games against France than France have against them. They [France] were our biggest contest in the round-robin.

"They have a game plan that has been sorted out well over the years. [They have a] Big scrum, driving lineout, ball in the air, big physical presence at the breakdown and they scramble well in defence. They look vulnerable there at times but they scramble well. It looks like there is going to be space but all of a sudden it closes."

It's that predictability which is Argentina's greatest strength and weakness. The All Blacks know what they will encounter, which is why they can be confident in their ability to break open the Pumas in 70 minutes.

Sonny Bill Williams is on the wing to act as a deterrent to Argentina's kicking game. If he can catch the high ball, he has the ability to break loose and create try scoring opportunities. Cory Jane can do the same and the All Blacks are planning to keep the tempo high and force Argentina to keep moving.

If the All Blacks can score points early and keep the scoreboard ticking over and demand that the Pumas chase the game, take some risks and fire some passes, then they will increase the chances of mistakes being made.

That's what they want - an aerobic contest that gets the ball away from the tight exchanges. If they can achieve that, then the bench will not become an issue.

That was the plan four years ago as well - run the French ragged and leave them with all the work to do in the final quarter. For 30 minutes, that plan was on track.

The All Blacks know the dangers of only half doing a job in a quarter-final.

That's one thing Henry will have made clear this week.

- Herald on Sunday

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