Reason: All Blacks in need of some new tricks?

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 20/08/2014
Steve Hansen
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SOBERING NIGHT IN SYDNEY: Is All Black coach Steve Hansen running out of ideas for his All Blacks?

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OPINION: Love the rain. Give me a stick of dynamite and I would blow the roof off the Millennium Stadium. Wet weather rugby is a whole new ball game. It demands a higher skill level, a flexible tactical mind and it gives the fate of the contest to the forwards.

Suddenly these All Blacks didn't look half the team that some people had assumed they were.

Don't tell me the conditions were impossible or that they ruined the spectacle. And don't tell it to the 39,523 people, it is still hard to believe the size of the crowd, who were jammed into Wellington's Athletic Park back in 1996.

The conditions that day were far worse than they were in Sydney last weekend, because a howling wind drove the rain, but those All Blacks played the rugby of the gods.

Craig Dowd, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and the rest of that wonderful side made three unforced errors in 80 minutes.

They scored six tries, many of them sublime, in thrashing the Wallabies 43-6. Several of that Australian squad would go on to win the World Cup three years later.

Rugby is a game for all weathers. You remember the All Blacks who played at Stradey Park at the end of the '80s? The wind was so severe that when the Llanelli first-five tried to take a drop-out, the ball blew back over his head.

The All Blacks did not build much of a lead with the wind and the Welsh punched the air at half-time. But in the second half Wayne Shelford's men stuck the ball up the jumper and did not concede a point in an exhibition of control.

These are the standards that the current team must aspire to and at the moment they fall a long way short. So what went wrong on Saturday?

Where are the weaknesses that the All Blacks have to fix if they are to stay ahead of the world and not relapse at another overseas World Cup?

(1) Tactically the All Blacks seem to have stalled. The game plan that worked so well early in Steve Hansen's reign, a variation on the Crusaders game of stacking the edges with ball-playing forwards, has been worked out by the opposition. France and Argentina were the first to adapt last year, and since then most teams have managed to contain the All Blacks with a rushing inside defence and an outside drift. Since that monumental victory in South Africa, New Zealand have played seven games, and in six of them the average margin of victory is under four points. The trick of international rugby is staying ahead of the game, to keep moving. No wonder Hansen is desperate to get Wayne Smith on board. His legacy may well depend on it.

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(2) Defensive speed. What was so puzzling about the All Blacks on Saturday was the passiveness of their defence. They were more aggressive on their own line, but in most parts of the field they held back. As they had decided to kick the ball back to Australia and play off defensive turnovers, a la South Africa 2007, you might have expected more attack in the defence. But they let the Australians come on and still missed a ton of tackles, the front row being particularly culpable. Contrast with Australia. Like the Waratahs they rush the first receiver, with Michael Hooper smashing Aaron Cruden early on. Smartly, in defence, the Wallabies had Matt Toomua at first receiver and brought Rob Horne in from the wing to play '12' inside Ashley-Cooper with Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau dropped deep on the flanks. Hansen's smart-alec comments about Beale playing at 10 grotesquely underestimated the flexibility of Australia's game plan.

(3) Penalties. It is a worry that refs have caught up with Richie McCaw who, as in the Super 15 final, was pinged a lot on Saturday (four times). With the captain's authority diminished, the rest of the team is now exposed. Wyatt Crockett is another serial defender. Beauden Barrett was unlucky to receive a yellow card, as no ruck was formed, justice was done - a few moments earlier, during a desperate passage on the New Zealand line, Fekitoa was offside, Mealamu was off his feet and Owen Franks was slowing the ball down. Astonishingly no yellow card. But bottom line, Richie needs to stop going in at the side.

(4) Fullback. This is a dilemma for Hansen. He wants to play Ben Smith, who is the best fullback, and who inspired two of New Zealand's finest moments against Australia. But, Crusaders man as he is, Hansen is timid about counter-attacking from deep. And if they won't launch from their own half, then the All Blacks miss the sheer length and accuracy of Israel Dagg's kicking.

(5) First-five. Cruden made a try-saving tackle and put in some fine chip kicks, but he also blew an overlap on a turnover when he broke himself and made a couple of unforced errors. Dan Carter's tactical awareness and defensive shrewdness in partnership with Conrad Smith are starting to be missed.

(6) Front five. The locks are both very fine players, but they are quite similar players. The All Blacks lack an enforcer who really shifts bodies and they are physically short in the front row. They do not compare to Dowd, Fitzpatrick, Brown, Robin Brooke and Ian Jones, the class of '96.

(7) Back row. Whisper it, but Jerome Kaino made two big errors on Saturday. When Sam Cane came on he won the first back row turnover penalty in the entire match for New Zealand. Is it time to shift Richie to 6?

- Stuff

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