Are All Blacks missing game time?
October 19, 2003
The great Colin Meads is not one of those old timers who is quick to condemn the current generation of rugby players as a load of overpaid, over-coiffured nancy boys.
His views on developments since rugby went professional in 1995 are more often than not considered and sympathetic to the demands made of professional players and coaches.
But watching the All Blacks struggle against the Canadians on Friday evening ( and they did struggle , despite scoring ten tries and looking devastating out wide ) I was reminded of Pine Tree's pre-World Cup concerns about John Mitchell's preparation of his team.
Was it a good idea, he wondered, to have withdrawn them more or less completely from NPC action , leaving the bulk of the squad without any sort of competitive rugby between the end of the Tri Nations and the start of pool play in Melbourne ? Yes, there were those five camps in various out of the way parts of New Zealand, a sort of royal progress around the provinces, and the opportunity to thoroughly immerse the squad in the World Cup game plan . But the promised solidity and slickness of the combinations necessary to seriously challenge for the big prize have so far proved elusive , the looseness of the forward play in particular unlikely to trouble the likes of England and France.
The worry for All Black followers must be that, as in 1995, they play the most spectacular rugby but fall at the final hurdle. We have come to expect the usual avalanche of points against the minnows, but what sort of preparation is this for the lethal predators waiting further out to sea ? The supposedly second string Canadian pack embarrassed the All Blacks at times, getting to the breakdown in greater numbers, isolating the tackled ball carrier and forcing errors and penalties and creating a general sense of unease and frustration.
On the New Zealand commentary Jeff Wilson was quite excited by the sight of the All Blacks committing so few players to the rucks and fanning out across the pitch to erect their defensive wall. This worries me. The English and French will surely target this area and attempt to blow holes through the middle. Attention to the hard-nosed basic details has so far been lacking , the much -trumpeted depth in this All Black squad true of the backs but not necessarily of the forwards. Of the pack that lined up against Canada only Reuben Thorne , Brad Thorn and Chris Jack are likely first picks, the return of Mealamu, Collins and McCaw, in particular, essential to generate the forward momentum and power needed to trouble the very best.
At the moment the All Blacks look under-prepared for the sterner challenges ahead. Perhaps Meads got it dead right. Game time in the NPC might have exposed the squad to greater risk of injury . But those have occurred anyway , leaving one with the uneasy suspicion that the hard physical edge is missing and will prove the side's Achilles heel.