12 July 2008

All Blacks coaches say they can't fault the effort

Worrying signs of weakness, or just a blip on the graph? The All Blacks coaches were definitely taking the glass half-full approach to their historic, and last-gasp, Saturday night defeat to the Springboks at Carisbrook.

After a 30-28 Tri-Nations win by the South Africans that not only broke a decade-long drought on New Zealand soil, but finally ended the New Zealanders' world record run of victories at home, it might have been easy for the doubts to start creeping in.

After all the All Blacks were outplayed up front, out-executed when it mattered most and found out in terms of the hard edge required to get home in a match of this intensity. It was fine line stuff, with halfback Ricky Januarie's moment of brilliance five minutes from the end the difference, but there was no doubting that Graham Henry's men should have done better with a five-point lead, a man up and just a half-dozen minutes remaining.

When they had to, the Boks found the response they needed. Januarie sold his dummy, found the All Black ruck defence wanting and scooted clear for the try that sealed a famous victory for a side which raised the metaphorical two fingers to their detractors.

It was a harsh call later, too, when All Blacks skipper Rodney So'oialo shrugged off the Januarie stroke of brilliance as "a lucky bounce" that "stole the game away from us". It was more than that. Much more.

It was a champion side digging deep when they had to, finding the right response in the face of adversity. Their skipper, Victor Matfield, had been despatched just moments earlier to the sinbin. Heads could have dropped. But they didn't and Peter de Villiers' controversial halfback selection stepped up and repaid his coach's faith in the best possible manner.

But still the All Blacks coaches were hammering a positive message out of a negative result. The signs, they reckoned, were good that this young pack is building the sort of experience that will bring the rewards down the track. Panic buttons were nowhere near to being depressed.

"It was a massive effort we put in in that second half and we kept going right to the end," said assistant coach Wayne Smith. "Rugby's like that sometimes - you can't quite hold on. They made a brilliant play right at the end, an individual play and came out with the spoils.

"But you couldn't ask any more from young fellows in terms of effort, heart and trying to play the game."

But, surely, in the end the inexperience up front finally cost the All Blacks. That second row that played the last 60 minutes featured a debutant (Kevin O'Neill off the bench) and a fellow making his first test start (Anthony Boric). Against Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the world's best (and meanest) second-row tandem.

The loose trio experiment of continuing to plough on without a specialist No 7 finally bit the All Blacks on the bum, too. So'oialo toiled, Adam Thomson had moments of promise and Jerome Kaino was unable to leave his imprint on the game this week. The Boks won the loosie battle hands-down.

Smith conceded inexperience and some "silly" second-half penalties counted against the All Blacks. "But that's test match rugby. You've got young men under intense pressure. I think they fronted and played pretty well. Someone's got to win."

Asked if they should have closed the match down better once Matfield was yellow-carded, Smith measured his response.

"You'd like to be able shut them down, but they got a couple of bounces, scrambled ball away, and all of a sudden you're under a bit of pressure, and the halfback made a dummy that was a really good play."

And at the end, with Dan Carter unable to be set up for the dropped goal he was clearly keen to take? Says Smith: "We got caught in places with that pick and go and we were always struggling. You're not going to make yardage against them in there. We probably lost our chance to take the droppie a wee bit earlier.

"We didn't have a great first half but in the second half I was really proud of them. I thought we implemented what we wanted, had a real crack at them, and we could have won it."

There were words of respect, too, for a Boks side that responded magnificently after a pretty average effort seven days earlier.

"You don't do what they did last year as a fluke," noted Smith. "They're a good team, and we never have an easy match against them, World Cup holders or not. It's always competitive. We should have lost down here in '05, but we got the win with three minutes to go. Today they did it."

Smith, who said the All Blacks had no beef with the officiating of whistle-happy rookie ref Mat Goddard, also gave his backline the thumbs-up, despite the fact that in back-to-back tests against the Boks they haven't been able to crack the resolute South African defence.

"I think the backline played well," said a defiant Smith. "There were a few linebreaks. Ma'a [Nonu] made about three, Mils [Muliaina] made about three, and Rudi Wulf made about three. They performed well, hit the right areas, and created some problems. We'll look at the tape and make some better assessments but my casual eye on the backs was that they performed well and had a real crack at them."

Head coach Graham Henry also refused to condemn his side for its inability to nail a result in the closing minutes.

"We would have wanted to have batted out time well, but it didn't quite happen. We made a defensive error around the ruck and Ricky Januaruie took advantage of that.

"We tried to get in position to pull it out of the fire over the last minute or two, but a dropped goal 45m out is a pretty big ask for anybody, even someone of Dan Carter's status.

"I think the guys have the right recipe, it's just difficult putting that into action at times."

Henry also felt the All Blacks' second-half effort would have been good enough to secure a victory 90 percent of the time.

"I thought [the All Blacks] played some superb football in that second half, probably good enough to win it nine times out of 10.

"We had a lot of inexperienced guys out there who gave their guts. I've got a huge amount of respect for what they did. They'll grow from that experience.

"We had one lock playing his first test match as a starter, another guy came on after 20 minutes to play his first test match, and they were playing the two most experienced locks in the world.

"I thought they did very well. The lineout obviously needs a bit of attention. But they're the best combination in world rugby in the middle row, so it was a big learning curve for guys who haven't played any test match football."

That has to be the prevailing message for an All Blacks side that has at last been exposed as vulnerable. They must learn from this bitter experience. And quick. The Wallabies loom in a fortnight and suddenly look a formidable prospect too.

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