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Trophy far from secure for All Blacks

opinion Max Bania

By Max Bania

Published: 1:00PM Monday September 10, 2012 Source: ONE Sport

  • A frustrated Israel Dagg (Source: Photosport)
    A frustrated Israel Dagg - Source: Photosport

They might be three from three in the Rugby Championship, but if the All Blacks took one thing from Saturday night's win over Argentina, the trophy is far from in the bag just yet.

The elusive "complete performance" remains some way out of reach, and there must be concern that their three toughest fixtures - home and away against the Springboks, and away in Argentina - are still to come.

As they did in their home and away Tests against the Wallabies, they're still trying to do too much too quickly. In Wellington, their error rate was accelerated by a hustling, bustling Argentine defence. Time after time they were caught watching the on-rushing defenders and not the ball, with predictable results.

It was a learning curve for the young halves duo of Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith. The latter was effectively shut down by the Pumas' close quarters defence, while the former failed to control the game and frequently went missing at first receiver; often leaving stationary tight forwards to receive back foot ball.

They have two options against the Springboks this weekend: continue with the high-octane game plan and hope the players cotton on at the fourth attempt; or play at a slower pace with more accuracy. The latter holds some appeal against a South African side renowned for its ability to punish mistakes.

He's unlikely to have given it much thought, but Steve Hansen's first season in top job is unfolding similarly to Graham Henry's first year as All Blacks coach in 2004.

That year, after brushing aside Northern Hemisphere opposition, Henry's men laboured to unimpressive home wins over Australia and South Africa in the Tri-Nations. Henry asked the public for patience as his troops struggled to acclimatise to his infamous "flat backline" policy. Instead they were well beaten in both their away fixtures and finished last in the tournament.

The comparison only goes so far. Hansen has a far better crop of players at his disposal (journeymen Xavier Rush and Jono Gibbes formed two-thirds of Henry's loose trio in 2004) and are winning comfortably despite never looking like hitting top gear.

But the longer the handling mistakes and inaccuracies continue, the greater the suspicion that they're over-extending themselves by trying to play a million miles a minute.

We've seen against Ireland, and at times against the Wallabies, what this team is capable of. Now it's time to do it for a full 80 minutes against the Boks and make the competition their own - even if it means sacrificing finesse for forward grunt.

*****

Thank goodness for Richie McCaw.

Not for a moment should we take for granted the professionalism and good humour the All Blacks skipper has displayed throughout a decade of media commitments; the majority of them dull and repetitive.

Compare to that to the childish reaction of injured Wallabies skipper Will Genia, when asked (quite legitimately) whether their win over the Boks on Saturday night represented a tough night for him personally, but a good one for the team.

"Are you having a crack at me there? Mate it's not about any individuals. It's about the group mate", Genia retorted, in reference to his season-ending knee injury.

It was a dummy-spit that revealed just how under pressure this Australian team is, and the siege mentality the players have clearly adopted in the face of criticism from all-comers.

It served them well against the Springboks in Perth and breathed new life into a Four Nations campaign that looked over almost before it began.

The campaign is already over for Genia though, who has six months on the sideline to ponder his diplomacy skills.

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