Tri-Nations 2009

/ Verdict

South Africa v New Zealand, Tri-Nations, August 1
Assured, precise and ruthless
Huw Baines
August 1, 2009

Quite a day for the headline-writers. You had John Smit leading the Springboks for the 60th time and eclipsing the world record in the process. Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers won their 50th caps. Morne Steyn trumped them all.

The Bulls fly-half, rated behind the temperamental Ruan Pienaar by the Springbok selectors, drank in the cheers of the crowd at Kings Park after his 31-point haul crushed the All Blacks and broke the Tri-Nations scoring record in the process.

Steyn was assured, precise and ruthless. In short, he was everything that the increasingly ragged All Blacks were not.

Some of the blame must lay at the feet of coach Graham Henry. His blind faith in hooker Andrew Hore is becoming a folly. Hore's first throw went awry in Durban to the surprise of…well, Graham Henry apparently. Last season Hore was a standout as the All Blacks secured the Tri-Nations crown, but he should never have started. His throwing against Australia two weeks ago and last weekend against the Springboks showed a lack of cohesion with line-out caller Isaac Ross, and a maddening lack of confidence. Things snowball.

He got the Shepherd's crook, along with scrum-half Jimmy Cowan, after only three minutes of the second half following his latest skewed throw. This, a far more humiliating exit, should have happened behind the scenes this week.

The rest of the blame lies with the senior players. Richie McCaw, a giant of the game, has been roundly outplayed by Heinrich Brussow in their two Tests. The Crusaders man is not match fit after a long injury, and has not been able to count on any real help. Rodney So'oialo, so long McCaw's back-up, has been off-form since returning and a younger, yet commanding, option in Kieran Read may be considered for future games.

The All Blacks committed the cardinal sin of throwing away possession when they were struggling to come by it. Their set-piece was in ruins, yet wingers Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu were hurling the ball around inside their own 22 at any available opportunity. Their loose play led to a rash of penalties, eight of which were dispatched by Steyn.

Behind McCaw there is the feeling that the half-back pairing of Cowan and Stephen Donald could be replaced at any time. Cowan didn't enjoy his best game and despite the admirable fighting spirit of Donald, Henry and his coaching staff would have heard the sound of Dan Carter lacing up his boots to play for Canterbury this morning all the way from their team hotel.

Carter, not match-fit by any stretch, might provide the calming hand that the All Blacks require. The Springboks are a team that make contrasts work. Behind the ferocious, powerful pack is the always assured Fourie du Preez, today there was Steyn and in midfield there is the experienced pairing of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie. The calm behind the storm, so to speak.

Carter could be the man to rein in the helter-skelter All Blacks, although his kicking arsenal isn't much use if the ball never comes back from the lineout. In terms of his handling, he showed last season on the All Blacks' Grand Slam tour that he could send Ma'a Nonu into gaps that many would have barely noticed.

He's the complete package, but not a miracle worker, however. He isn't responsible for the set-piece, he can't stop the forwards being outfought at the breakdown and won't provide a much-needed ball-carrying platform. The All Blacks now have two weeks off, and there's plenty of work to do.

From a Springbok perspective, they entertain the Wallabies in Cape Town next weekend. The fact that the All Blacks outmuscled the Australians in the tournament opener bodes well for their fired-up pack, but the men in gold will be all too aware of the need for discipline and more discipline with Steyn standing at No.10.

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