Standing on the doorstep of Tri-Nations 2004, there weren’t too many All Black fans brazenly predicting All Black dominance… Us Kiwis aren’t like that. But I have a suspicion that like myself, many were feeling quietly optimistic that we could be in for a great season.
After beating the English 2-0, it was all too tempting to still believe Cunning Clive Woodward’s insistence that the “World Champion Team” he dragged down under hard on the heels of a torrid Northern hemisphere season were neither tired nor past it.
Graham Henry spoke a new language we all understood. It’s called plain English. With him were likeable Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen both coming straight from successful coaching positions in the summer-less North, and both widely acknowledged as top blokes with top brains.
So we had every right to feel quietly optimistic… right?
Game One in Wellington was against the weather. Australia showed up too, and unused to the possibility of drowning on the rugby field, succumbed to a dominant All Black forward performance. The backs seemed strangely ineffective, but they had every excuse, didn’t they? The weather was abysmal after all...
The fact the Aussies backs seemed fluent and fast despite the weather didn’t ring any alarm bells. We won didn’t we? Eddie Jones pointing out that our backline seemed incapable of scoring tries despite enormous possession, and that we had “defensive frailties” seemed somehow laughable.
Game Two against South Africa in Christchurch was played in similar temperatures to Wellington, but without the torrential rain. With roughly 50-50 possession the All Blacks were beaten three tries to one, destroyed at the breakdown and only by virtue of ill-disciplined Springboks and deadeye kicking from Dan Carter did they stay in touch on the scoreboard.
A last minute last gasp try gave New Zealand an unlikely victory. Tana told us they always knew they’d come away with the win if they kept the pressure on. But I think deep down, at the very least most of us put the game in the “we were just a little bit lucky to scrape that bastard” category.
For the second game in a row our backs were utter crap. But by now the crap had a name… The name is “Flat Backline” and we are reliably informed it is great for getting over the advantage line. I don’t know about the advantage line, but it sure as hell does bugger all to get us near the try line.
But again, we had won. The old adage that “a win is a win” became our favourite adage, and though an unpleasant uneasy feeling in the stomach was growing, we all knew the All Black backline was clearly on the verge of a rampant try scoring spree in Sydney.
Game Three, Sydney. The All Black forwards, possibly inspired by the recent form of the backline put in an limp wristed and generally crap performance which led to a comprehensive Wallaby victory.
This was bloody confusing…
While the forwards were playing quite well, it was easy to see why the backline wasn’t firing. It was obviously the responsibility of the remarkable new “Flat Backline” innovation. But with no go-forward ball, did we still have a crap backline? Or just the forwards this time? Or heaven forbid - both of them?
All Black supporters may not be vocal when they feel confident, but it’s a different story when the team fails! The knives were out. But none of us really knew where to aim them.
I guess we could sack the coaches again. That always works.
Leaving it until Game Four to put in the scintillating try-laden display we had all been waiting for probably wasn’t in the Graham Henry plan. With the prevailing conditions for the match being Johannesburg, altitude and Ellis Park, it really doesn’t get any harder.
In the end it was far too hard. The “Flat Backline” experiment failed again, as did the forwards. Outscored five tries to two it was an extremely disappointing effort to say the least.
So what the bloody hell is wrong?
I think it is the combination of a number of things:
Desire and commitment. It isn’t there 110%. These guys aren’t sweating blood and leaving everything on the park. They aren’t completely spent when they walk off.
Self belief and confidence. The backline no longer believe they can score from set phase ball. So they are throwing hallelujah passes, desperately trying to create broken play.
Leadership and Brains. The ability to recognise a failing game plan, having the courage and intelligence to change it during the game are not there. Leading by example isn’t enough.
Richie McCaw and Keith Robinson. Tenacity, the X-factor and raw aggression are missing. These guys are built from that stuff.
So for 2004, Graham Henry and company are barely on a C- pass mark.
Dear Mr Henry, Smith and Hansen: The end of year tour is the time to swallow some pride, revert to proven tactics and regroup. Please.