All Blacks failed in brains, not brawn

Last updated 09:30 19/08/2014
Richie McCaw
GETTING PINGED: All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw.

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The British media's rugby writers love to write barbed pieces about the All Blacks demise, some barely able to disguise their glee when the men in black trip up or scramble a victory.

It's the fourth estate's equivalent of baiting the hook and waiting for the fish to bite. And invariably - we all do.

But many have been writing more restrained pieces that are equally designed to irk, yet have a greater element of truth than ever before. They have loved declaring that New Zealand rugby is in decline. Sadly, there is some truth in that. But mainly in the top two inches.

The result on Saturday was down to a few key things: ball retention, discipline, the weather, but largely, a lack of thinking.

The deluge in Sydney defined the game, yet the All Blacks compounded the problem with a constant stream of handling errors and a woeful lack of discipline.

At the breakdown, Richie McCaw has always sailed close to the wind and his win ratio was a lot higher with referees a few years ago than it is today. He's being pinged at a higher rate now than at any time in his past.

He has always understood the rules and has played those rules to the limit - a wily competitor. Against the Wallabies, the bulk of the penalties were given away by his team mates, in often cynical circumstances and without the guile and stealth that the modern game demands. The referee was a little inconsistent but the boys in Black pretty much earned each admonishment. That stems from a lack of mental dexterity.

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A lack of discipline, attributable to thinking clearly, or not, on the pitch, cost us dearly. Wyatt Crockett was better in the scrums, causing genuine problems for the Australian front row. But his yellow card earned him a seat on half way for 10 minutes, because he stupidly went for a ball he should have left alone. It cost him, and his team mates a difficult 10-minutes.

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He owed us for that blunder, but didn't get the chance because his general play was poor. Aucklanders will be rejoicing undoubtedly - I know he doesn't have many friends up that way.

Our ball retention was also linked to a lack of brains. It was pelting down and yet we persisted (when we didn't kick the ball away) in throwing 50:50 bullet passes, often to players in a worse position and trying to do the basic things too quickly.

We love a fast, open and expansive game, but in that weather, you have to think smarter. You don't push passes and you don't continue with the 50:50 lottery. You slow the game down and safeguard the ball like your life depends on it.

By and large the forwards were solid. McCaw performed some of his magic but removing the rose-tinted glasses tells me that he was beaten to the ball all day by his opposite. Michael Hooper continued his rich vein of form, and at 22 he will be a thorn in our sides for a long time.

Aaron Smith did his best at 9 to marshal the troops but he was the last line of creativity. Aaron Cruden was woefully out of touch, making poor decisions, forcing the play and panicking in the off-load. Did the All Black backs worry about taking the ball into contact perhaps - concerned that we would turn it over?

So often the game-changer, Cruden brought nothing to the game and was predictable. Thankfully the Aussie management left Michael Foley on the bench as he would have dominated his opposite.

If the Australian back three were happy to field kicks, in wet conditions, why persist in kicking to them? Ma'a Nonu tried hard and Malakai Fekitoa hardly saw the ball - but it was a day for ducks and forwards, not the "miss two brigade".

I need to be convinced that Cruden has a Plan B; he demonstrated limited vision, kicking or shovelling the ball along the back line. When the change came at 10, it was too late in my view and then a lack of discipline cost Beauden Barrett a yellow-card after only minutes on the park. Players need to hit the game off the bench fully focused and switched on. They don't have time to get into the game.

Steve Hansen has demonstrated loyalty time again to guys who have delivered in the past. But Cory Jane has struggled to look like the black jersey still fits him and yet he is an automatic choice it seems.

On the brains front, I also extend that to the men in the back room. Hansen is rumoured to want Wayne Smith back on the roster. With a palpable lack of tactics and ideas on the park, Smith's genius is needed, with some urgency. Subbing a competitive and combative Dane Coles off for Keven Mealamu did not work.

One of the best hookers to ever pull on the black jersey needs to help the selectors and bow out of international rugby. He has been a legend of the game, but like all greats who can't quite deliver the gold stuff any longer, he needs to call time on his international career.

Hansen doesn't have all the answers and needs some support. He also needs to look at his selection criteria and ease up on the loyalty factor.

Our foes are building younger, faster and more skilled teams and squads capable of knocking us off our perch. The Aussies are a better team than last season and while we may turn up and play better at Eden Park, a win may just paper over some of the cracks that the British media love to highlight.

Are we contenders for the RWC in 2015? Of course. Every All Black team is. But if we continue with the same tactics, refrain from evolving the squad, maintain loyalty to players who are struggling to deliver that gold dust - and I include McCaw in that mix - we will struggle to defend our title.

Call me old fashioned and a bit harsh perhaps, but brains is more a challenge for this All Black team than brawn right now.

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