All Blacks have to find some answers

The All Blacks' search for a superior rugby game is raising more questions than answers.

After five tests under coach John Mitchell, starting with last year's tour of Ireland, Scotland and Argentina, they have yet to convince New Zealanders they can return to rule world rugby.

Only a late burst saw them finally beat Ireland 40-29 in Dublin last November.

A bigger margin than the 37-6 win over Scotland was expected, and that paled a week later in the face of Argentina coming close to causing the biggest upset in test rugby. Only a try by Scott Robertson in the last few minutes took the All Blacks to a 24-20 win in Buenos Aires.

They were no better against Italy two weeks ago than they were against Ireland in Dublin, and the 2002 Irish, without several top-line players, restricted them to a 15-6 win last week.

The team were booed off the pitch at Carisbrook, although the fact that no Otago players were in the national team may have had something to do with that reaction.

But no one, not even the players or coach John Mitchell, denied they played awfully that day.

The explanation from the All Black camp was that the search for the game to lift New Zealand to win the Bledisloe Cup, the Tri-Nations and the World Cup was on.

But for how long?

All five opponents the All Blacks beat under Mitchell's control are not regarded in the same league as the Tri-Nations rivals.

Fans have questioned on talkback radio and in newspaper letters columns all week whether the All Blacks were capable of playing as they have in the Bledisloe Cup series over the last two years.

They wondered if the team had improved since Mitchell had become coach.

Former All Black captain Wayne Shelford queried if a selection policy existed in the team. He couldn't understand why certain players were picked one week and dropped another week, and why others remained in the team.

However, they have an opportunity to provide some evidence of progress in tonight's return test against Ireland at Eden Park.

After the kind of media and public reaction that last week's performance generated, the All Blacks would normally muster some depth of resolve and respond with power.

However, the Irish will be inspired by last week's result and now firmly believe they can beat the All Blacks.

Ireland, under the leadership of hooking maestro Keith Wood, matched and even bettered New Zealand's set pieces and tight play.

On the side of the scrum and in tackle situations, Keith Gleeson and All Black Richard McCaw were engaged in a fierce battle.

Brian O'Driscoll, widely regarded as one of the best centres in the world, and John Kelly have more international experience at midfield than New Zealand's Aaron Mauger and Mark Robinson.

While both team's attention turned on the Auckland weather and ground conditions following constant rain in the city, Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan also had Jonah Lomu to think about.

The big winger is the lightest he's been, 118kg, in two years and the All Blacks won't say which wing he'll plan on.

"Every team will pay special attention if he's playing," O'Sullivan said.

"Just look at the man's ability, you have to pay a lot of respect to that."

All Black prop Dave Hewett indicated Ireland surprised them in more ways than just switching O'Driscoll to second five-eighth from centre last week.

"They were pulling off moves -- we didn't know what they were doing at line-out time or at the breakdowns -- but they were a completely different team to the one we played in Dublin last November," he said.

* Meanwhile the All Blacks, some blurry-eyed, were forced to clear their central city hotel in Auckland at midnight last night after a fire alarm went off.

They gathered with other guests outside the hotel for about 30 minutes before being allowed back into their rooms.

- NZPA

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