Reason: ABs' luck running out; North close gap

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 11/06/2014
Marland Yarde, Nigel Owens
Getty Images
OFF YOU GO: England's Marland Yarde gets a controversial yellow card in last weekend's test at Eden Park.

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OPINION: The All Blacks keep on winning, just, but the rest of the world is no longer intimidated. The gap isn't closing, it has closed. New Zealand need to put England away this weekend, they need to run the big men off their feet, they need a victory of guile and style.

New Zealand's first priority is to prove that they have a plan B. Steve Hansen had the perfect opportunity when he took over as coach. He had a very solid base of team and tactics on to which he could add an outstanding group of young players and some new ideas.

New Zealand looked fresh and exciting and many people mistakenly concluded that Hansen was a coaching mastermind. We shall find out in the next 18 months how good a coach Hansen is. As Sir Alex Ferguson proved, the great coaches are the ones who can repeatedly regenerate teams.

The biggest margin of victory in New Zealand's previous four matches is eight points. In the most recent two matches they were helped over the line by the star-struck generosity of referee Nigel Owens.

Against Ireland in Dublin the All Blacks had clearly been out-thought. The Kiwi brains trust of Joe Schmidt and John Plumtree (how Ireland will miss him now he has returned home) found two great defensive holes in the middle of New Zealand's breakdown and behind their left wing. They also shut down New Zealand's wide game.

France had already had some success at this, pressuring the ball carrier (and that often meant targeting the key secondary receiver hidden behind, rather than the first receiver) and rushing a man up on the outside channel. Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi did this for England on Saturday. New Zealand's attack has yet to solve the problem.

Against England the All Blacks were dumb, and it is not very often you say that about a New Zealand rugby team. They kicked a lot of ball out on the full, allowing the heavy England pack to take a breather and the time to set from the next lineout.

Actually they kicked a lot of ball full stop. New Zealand strategy under Hansen has been to create numbers in narrow wide channels where they can use their power, pace and ball skills. And they love the kick in behind. I mean really love it.

There was some evidence in the Six Nations, particularly in their opening match against France, that England were vulnerable in the space behind their frontline defence. Ireland also tried to exploit it. England's big men don't turn well and the halfback doesn't always sweep in behind.

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The All Blacks had clearly decided this was where they would get England, but it was so predictable. They had some success with the tactic in the second half, but you really need a little more disguise at this level.

All things being equal, it would have cost them victory. It is time someone in authority had a word in Nigel Owens' ear because the man is clearly bewitched by New Zealand's captain. Owens coached Richie McCaw back onside in Dublin and then awarded a penalty against the Irish which ultimately cost them the game.

Against England at the weekend Owens shook Richie's hand at the end of the game and then, five seconds later, he was back for a second go. You wondered that he didn't get the autograph book out.

Owens' refereeing was partial. There were too many big decisions that he ducked in New Zealand's favour. Why did he not yellow card Ma'a Nonu for pulling back James Haskell in the opening minutes? It was a professional foul. Owens scarcely warned Nonu. Later in the match Nonu stopped England taking a quick 22, intercepting a pass and dropping it to the ground. Owens said nothing.

In either half he awarded two absurd knock-on decisions against England. But the clincher came in a crucial 10 minutes three-quarters of the way through the game.

David Wilson dropped the ball but was then shoulder charged by Jerome Kaino. Ignored. England then twice splintered the All Blacks scrum. The second time the All Blacks tight head and hooker stood up, the 8 and 6 spun the back of the scrum and McCaw detached early in order to dive on the ball. There were at least three obvious penalty offences and Owens ignored them all.

When Beauden Barrett fumbled in midfield, Malakai Fekitoa picked the ball up in front of him. Chris Robshaw and Tom May appealed for the most obvious offside. Owens ignored the offence just as he refused to yellow card Fekitoa when he prevented release on his own line.

This, by the way, is just the tip of a very large growler. I imagine England will have raised the issue with the IRB, because the moment they committed a professional foul, Owens couldn't wait to send Yarde to the bin. No team will want to face the All Blacks at the World Cup if Owens is in charge. There is too much evidence that he is in thrall to McCaw.

The All Blacks deserve credit for their end game. Danny Cipriani was too dim to intervene when England were without a halfback and had an isolated prop in midfield. Conrad Smith was smart enough to make them pay from the resultant penalty.

But the All Blacks can't keep getting out of jail. Hansen needs to show he is a clever general as well as a lucky one. He needs to move on. He needs a plan B. In England's case, Hansen needs to show he can literally stay ahead of the pack.

- Stuff

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