By CHRIS LAIDLAW

It is astonishing how quickly New Zealand rugby fans will turn on their favorite sons. The defeat in Dunedin last weekend provoked a particularly vicious outburst of spleen-venting; so much so that individual players took the highly unusual step of publicly springing to their own defence.

Anton Oliver has been boiled in oil over his impetuosity in not settling for a bonus point at the end. Fair enough? Not really. The game might have been unwinnable at that stage, but another try, as the Wallabies were wilting, would have given the All Blacks what would have amounted to a moral victory and a confidence platform for next time.

Taine Randell was, of course, on a hiding to nothing. His game is far less obvious than the flamboyance of George Smith, but on balance the two came out about even. Randell is a more comprehensive defender than Smith. He turned over some vital possession, particularly during the phase when the Wallabies were clearly on top, but he can't compete with Smith - and nor can anyone else, it seems - as a scrabbler on the ground.

The most severely mauled of them all has been Justin Marshall and much of that criticism has flowed from the unfairness of ignorance. Marshall wasn't anywhere near as bad as so much of the talkback histrionics would have it. He suffered, as he has all season, because of an inability of those ahead of him to clear the ball with consistent efficiency. Time after time he was forced to dig the ball free himself while those outside him, trying to time their run on to the recycled possession, got increasingly frustrated. It is the one great weakness of this All Black side and it is making the difference between winning and losing against Australia.

Yet in spite of these frustrations, Marshall's work around the field was as good as it has ever been. His close-in tackling was superb and his cover defence is the best of any halfback in the game.

Unfortunately, there are other aspects of his game that are not so flash. He is not breaking the line up the middle of the field decisively enough and when he does, he is all too often losing touch with others.

The quality of the Wallaby defensive screen, of course, has a lot to do with this. The Australians have managed to shut Marshall down most of the time. The area of most concern is his passing - at best average and at worst laboured and hesitant.

But how much better would Byron Kelleher perform all these tasks? Nobody really knows, especially against the Australians. Kelleher will unquestionably be given more game time against the Springboks, but their defensive organisation is not the Wallabies'. Kelleher could have a blinder against South Africa, then hit the wall in Sydney as his supply of possession becomes erratic and frustrating.

Anyone who thinks the halfback options are easy is dreaming. There are only two certainties: we have the best two available in the squad, but until the All Black recycling is improved, neither will deliver a premium performance.

All Blacks 2001 test schedule/scoreboard

All Blacks/Maori squads for 2001