A win for John Mitchell’s All Blacks in Eden Park in the second Test will not be enough to satisfy their demanding public writes Wynne Gray in the New Zealand Herald
Victory for the All Blacks tonight will not be enough for large sections of the nation’s rugby followers. Most fans believe the All Blacks will be successful in Auckland, but they also want them to achieve that result with some style, some pattern and some solidity after the disjointed work last week at Carisbrook. Anything worse against Ireland, who play their 500th test at Eden Park, will deliver all sorts of indignation about New Zealand’s position in the world rugby order.
The All Blacks still have the best winning percentage in test rugby, they carry the most fascination but they no longer rate as No 1. Challenges come from France, Australia, England and South Africa and those are accepted as part of the burgeoning professional rugby circuit.
But defeat against Ireland, no matter how much they have improved, would be viewed as a disaster.
A repeat of the bumbling 15-6 first test win at Carisbrook last week will bring significant disappointment and challenges for the All Black selectors. Their side is on notice. Coach John Mitchell, in his distinctive, quiet way, has let his squad know that their work in Dunedin was unacceptable. No rant, no rave, just a stare of cold-eyed displeasure about the performance.
The country, through a variety of channels, has also delivered its unflattering verdict. A full house of 45,000 is expected to turn up for the 7pm start tonight. It is a sign of fascination about progress on the national assignment and the only time this season Auckland hosts a test match.
The city has not been blessed with fine weather or any hometown selections leading into this international. After mixed work at Hamilton and Dunedin, these All Blacks need to persuade not only Auckland they are making progress.
All but Mark Robinson and Jonah Lomu have been given a reprieve selection after Carisbrook. It is a chance to redeem themselves or cast themselves closer to the discard list for the Tri-Nations series with Australia and South Africa.
The same pack has to combat the Irish far better. They did not stack up physically last week, the forwards were passive rather than positive, they did not make things happen. They were unsettled in the scrums, slow to support at the breakdown and guilty of many turnovers. In conditions that called for some serious forward unity, the All Blacks were scattered and ineffective.
That has brought some intriguing selection issues. After the test against Italy there was some disquiet about the way Kees Meeuws scrummed at tighthead prop, but there must have been equal concern about Greg Somerville last week. If there is a repeat tonight, what next?
It may be a similar case at No 8, where neither Taine Randell nor Scott Robertson have been convincing. Other positions most under review are halfback and wing.
With messy delivery from his pack last week, Justin Marshall’s pass was never going to ignite the backline. This test may decide whether the panel accept that limitation or search wider.
Lomu’s return prevents an entire Canterbury selection and, according to Mitchell and his assistant Robbie Deans, will showcase his talents on either wing. He was used away from his traditional left-wing lair in substitute appearances against Italy and Ireland and the selectors want to continue that tactic.
That should not faze Ireland as long as tactical kicks from Ronan O’Gara or Peter Stringer fly roughly where they are intended, with the controversial adidas ball to test Lomu’s defensive ability on what will be a greasy surface. Give him the ball on attack, though, and Ireland have already seen in 10 minutes at Carisbrook how destructive Lomu can be.
If there was a glow about the All Blacks last week it was in their defence. It was rarely breached, no matter the inventive endeavour of Keith Wood and Brian O’Driscoll and a variety of thoughtful grubberkicks.
The All Blacks passed that test but apart from two clinical moves for tries and a cut or two by Aaron Mauger and Leon MacDonald, they were messy on attack.
Carisbrook also revealed how much the All Blacks rely on Andrew Mehrtens. If his rhythm is affected, if he is made to hurry, if he is hassled, his influence is reduced markedly. He is the regular barometer for the All Blacks’ success.
Last week, like the temperature, he rarely warmed up. Tonight, he and his mates need to thaw quickly.