Off the mark by a game

November 16, 2003

I have to admit I was wrong in predicting that the All Blacks would go crashing out of the World Cup rugby tournament when they played South Africa in the quarter-finals. No, I was off by a game - they went down in the semi-finals and one of the main reasons for that was the persistence with Leon MacDonald as centre.

In that quarter-final, South Africa played the worst they have played in any World Cup and the Blacks had stepped up a notch. It looked like MacDonald's selection as centre would wash. He scored a try in that game and also kicked a few penalties.

But it was an illusion as he was hardly tested. And in the semi-final against Australia, he came unstuck. He missed two penalties and a drop goal. He was guilty of letting Australian fly-half Stephen Larkham break through time and again. Larkham is one of those players who is scared to even come within touching distance of Tana Umaga, the injured Blacks vice-captain who normally plays at centre.

The question must be asked - when Ma'a Nonu was picked as a reserve centre for the tournament why was he played only in the easier league games? Is this some kind of fallback to last year's theory that only pakeha can play the game in a disciplined manner?

More importantly, Carlos Spencer, the Blacks stand-off and playmaker, has some weaknesses in defence and Umaga has more than covered for him as well. Against Australia in the semi-final, Spencer had no protection and had to put all his efforts into defence instead of thinking up moves for his own backs to break through.

Yet that wasn't the entire story. Australia changed their game and, while running the ball wide, did not use that as their number one tactic to score. Their main tactic was to retain possession no matter how many phases they went through and frustrate New Zealand into making mistakes. They have watched England and learned well - this is the main weapon for the lads from Old Blighty. You need a reliable place kicker for this plan to come off and Elton Flatley did not disappoint - though, arguably, most of his kicks were from easy angles.

Australia was also helped by the fact that the match was under the supervision of Englishman Chris White - for a long time, teams from the Southern Hemisphere have had problems with the way referees from the Northern Hemisphere interpret the rule regarding the formation of a ruck. New Zealand's Ritchie McCaw, arguably the best loose side flanker in the world, conceded two penalties by attempting to get the ball out with his hands when he was justified in doing so. Both times White ruled that the ruck had already formed. Australia were prudent enough not to indulge themselves when in White's direct line of vision.

White also erred in not sending off George Smith who, in the first half, hit Justin Marshall with a crunching tackle in the ribs well after the Blacks scrum-half had got rid of the ball. Marshall, who played a pivotal role in the quarter-final, had to be replaced soon after the second half began. All that Smith earned was a few words - the same as dished out to Blacks skipper Reuben Thorne in the second half when he committed himself to a tackle on Mat Rogers and then managed to keep it down to a shoulder bump.

New Zealand were not helped either by a dubious ruling by video referee Jonathan Kaplan, after Malili Muliaina went over by the corner flag and scored. Kaplan ruled that he had knocked the ball forward. Muliaina got the ball down and then it rolled loose - if one had to go by Kaplan's judgement, then MacDonald's try against South Africa the previous week was also a knock-on as he let the ball roll loose after grounding it within the try-in goal area.

The All Blacks seemed stunned by the decision and never recovered. Minutes later, Spencer's long loop-around pass to MacDonald was intercepted by Stirling Mortlock who raced nearly the length of the entire field to score. Even Joe Rokocoko could not chase him down. The irony of the situation was that if the pass had reached Rokocoko via MacDonald as Spencer intended, the winger would have had a clear run to the try-in goal area - he was a few feet away and nobody was there to stop him.

But there was an indication that the All Blacks were nervous right at the start when Thorne opted for kicking the first and second penalties which they got, rather than going for tries. Up until this point during the 2003 season, the Blacks have always backed their own ability - this was the first time they opted for the conservative option and it showed that the change in Wallaby tactics had got to them.

It was something like the quarter-final when the All Blacks lifted their game a few notches from their last league outing and South Africa played like fools. This time the fools were the All Blacks. They had no answer after that try by Mortlock and let Australia dictate the pace and tactics of the game. They had no plan B, made no bid to score points through field goals - though Aaron Mauger kicked one against South Africa - and seemed to have resigned themselves to defeat well before the whistle blew.

Australia should be congratulated for playing within themselves and keeping their kicking down to a minimum. During the Trinations tournament, they kicked like fools and lost possession time and again, most of the time putting the ball down Muliaina's throat. This time they did nothing of the kind. But faced with an England outfit which practices similar tactics, I wonder how they will fare.

Yes, despite falling flat on my face with my earlier prediction, I'm willing to go another round and predict that England will defeat France in the semi-final which begins in about 40 minutes. But I've been wrong once before - and I could be this time too.