Lineup tweaks feed chaos in All Blacks lineup
Six personnel changes contributed greatly to the All Blacks disjointed display in Wellington last night.
The public expectation of a cakewalk at the Cake Tin possibly infiltrated the All Blacks' subconscious. After giving Australia back-to-back lessons, most thought the All Blacks would find it all too easy.
Tournament newbies Argentina, who in 14 attempts had never beaten the men in black, were seen the weakest link.
This was, supposedly, the chance to experiment somewhat.
Some tweaks were forced, but the reality is wide-spread change causes disruption. That was highly evident. This was another error-strewn performance from Steve Hansen's men.
Cohesion and fluency have been lacking from this All Blacks side. That did not improve in the face of a committed physical onslaught from the Pumas. They scrapped for everything and loved the game's ugly nature.
The All Blacks were largely devoid of accuracy and patience.
Of the changes, Tony Woodcock and Conrad Smith could not be overlooked, but even their inclusion required adjustment.
Carter's absence - coupled with Aaron Cruden's elevation - was the biggest talking point, rivalled only by the lights out power outage at half-time.
At 30, Carter is more susceptible to injury, as this week's calf injury proved. There will be a quiet realisation his long-term future, especially when in the capital, is questionable.
The fact there was no outcry of anxiety when he pulled out late is a huge vote of confidence in Cruden's undoubted abilities. But in lastnight's hideous conditions, the Chiefs playmaker struggled to stamp his authority, and control the match.
In the first-half he made three handling errors and, on one occasion, Richie McCaw didn't have faith in his boot from 40m out. To be fair, at that point, the whirlpool Wellington wind looked as though it might blow down the posts. Cruden finished with four from seven.
Recently, murmurs emerged that Carter's influence on the All Blacks was dwindling.
His ice-cool composure and experience would have shone against Argentina. Cruden has some way to go to catch the world's best No 10.
That is not to malign the Manawatu pivot. He is only 23; has made five starts at test level and last night's run was on the back of nine minutes in the last month. He was rusty. He also had to contend with a sluggish forward effort, slow delivery from a pressurised Aaron Smith and the lack of penetration from his outsides.
"Both halves are very inexperienced from a test point of view," Hansen said. "Tonight's game would have done wonders for them. You want them to be challenged, from a game-understanding sense. They'll go away and review things they did and be better for it."
To his credit, Cruden admitted the need to improve.
"I was trying to play my natural game," he said. "They hurried us up and I made a few mistakes. However, all in all I am happy to get a bit of game time."
Of the promoted local lads, Julian Savea deserves a tick for his work-rate -he chased kicks with passion all evening - strong defence and safe hands under the high ball. His efforts were rewarded with the All Blacks' first try.
Savea was nervous after Ireland exposed his weakness on a bitterly cold night in Christchurch in June, but the big black bus stepped up and may have done enough to overtake Hosea Gear on the left wing. Gear didn't impose himself enough against the Wallabies.
Liam Messam's injection three minutes into the second spell suggested Hansen wasn't impressed by Victor Vito's performance.
Vito didn't stamp his mark physically, confirming Messam's rise as the All Blacks' preferred blindside flanker. Vito's main blunder was being bundled into touch and not passing to two supporters with the line open.
"Liam's performance [from the bench] was pretty commanding," Hansen said. "We probably won't see the best of Victor tomorrow, or the day after that. He's a maturing player getting better all the time. At the moment Liam has probably got the wood over him."
In the locking department, Brodie Retallick was prominent around the filed but Luke Romano was the standout. Sam Whitelock's positive impression from the bench could see his stocks rise.
Next week in Dunedin, expect fewer changes and, hopefully, as a result, a more polished performance. The Springboks demand a lift in standards.
Sunday Star Times