Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks prepare for niggle

Australian coach Michael Cheika has added a harder edge to his team’s tactics.
Now that Australia's favourite enemy Richie McCaw has retired, who will the Wallabies target? Photo / Getty Images
Now that Australia's favourite enemy Richie McCaw has retired, who will the Wallabies target? Photo / Getty Images

It's probably not such a bad thing that World Rugby wasn't interested in delving too deeply into what happened the last time the All Blacks played the Wallabies.

All the governing body cared about was that the two sides had put on an epic World Cup final that brought a superb tournament to an appropriate close. There was no need, reckoned World Rugby, to be asking whether David Pocock had, in fact, stamped on Richie McCaw's head.

They were not interested in reviewing how many times Sekope Kepu had late-tackled All Blacks or how many times Michael Hooper had held back jerseys at rucks.

It wasn't a surprise to the All Blacks that these things had happened and weren't investigated. Both were par for the course. They had seen how World Rugby had run for the hills after the 2011 World Cup final, refusing to be interested by claims - supported by footage - that Aurelien Rougerie had eye-gouged McCaw.

They had also been braced to be played off the ball by the Wallabies in the final, having endured a fair bit of it in their other two games against Australia last year.

It would seem it's all part of coach Michael Cheika's plan to give his side a harder physical edge. Since he came into the job in November 2014, he's been determined to put a steel rod down the spine of the Wallabies and he's been largely successful.

That has extended, though, to what can only be described as developing a culture of niggle as part of the masterplan to intimidate and frustrate teams, particularly the All Blacks.

In the test in Sydney last year - the first the Wallabies had played against their old foe under Cheika - Australia were good value for their victory and upset the All Blacks more than they possibly imagined they could by working them hard off the ball.

They blocked All Blacks runners trying to make their way to the breakdown. They held down players after they had made a tackle and sometimes pulled jerseys as All Blacks were trying to break free to make it to the next phase.

It was orchestrated and effective as the All Blacks were caught in two minds, whether to deal with it themselves or leave it to referee Wayne Barnes to sort out.

When McCaw suggested midway through the game that either the officials managed the situation or the All Blacks would, the response from Barnes was to say: "Are you threatening me?"

Left with a choice to make, the All Blacks decided not to take matters into their own hands, concluding that was precisely what the Wallabies were hoping would happen.

When they next met in Auckland, and again at the World Cup, the All Blacks knew what was coming and were prepared for it. In London especially, they focused on not reacting to provocation.

They worked tirelessly on making sure that ball carriers dominated collisions to reduce the influence of Pocock, Hooper and Scott Fardy.

It was obvious, too, that the players and coaching staff on both sides were determined not to say anything in the build-up that could be used to fuel or antagonise the other.

Cheika made a monumental error on that front at the last minute - perhaps accidentally, perhaps not - when he was photographed at the captain's run the day before the test, carrying a paper with instructions.

These included the phrase "no Carter rage", a reference to remind Pocock not to be ill-disciplined in his efforts to physically intimidate All Blacks first five-eighths Daniel Carter. There were also reminders to try to "rattle" Kieran Read and isolate wings Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea. All legitimate and above board but an insight, nonetheless, into the Wallabies' desire under Cheika to try to get under the All Blacks' skin and unsettle them.

That approach hasn't done anything to help foster relations between the two teams and, ahead of next weekend's clash in Sydney, there is a sense of this test having the potential to explode.

The Wallabies played their underhand card throughout the June series against England - the worst aspect being Hooper trying to throw sand from the churned Melbourne field into English players' eyes.

Just as it didn't work in the World Cup final, it didn't throw a powerful English team off track, either, as England claimed the series 3-0 but it would seem this way of thinking has become a permanent part of Australia's philosophy under Cheika.

So the All Blacks head across the Tasman this morning increasingly wary about the rugby ability of the Wallabies which has improved out of sight under Cheika.

He's given them a scrum that works, a better physical presence across the park and the confidence to play wide.

There is also, however, an increasing awareness that the All Blacks will encounter a bit of nonsense designed to niggle and frustrate them.

As much as they have to be prepared for an intense, high-tempo battle, they have to be conscious about retaining their discipline while standing up for themselves without incurring the wrath of the referee.

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 29 May 2017 17:37:15 Processing Time: 672ms