All Blacks Find Some Fire was the headline in the sports section of the Sunday Star & Times a piece written by Duncan Johnstone, who says the Blacks still have plenty of work to do.
A stirring second half had All Black coach John Mitchell sensing real signs of progress as his team cast aside a plucky Irish side 40-8 in the second test at Auckland’s Eden Park last night.
Memories of the Dunedin debacle came flooding back as New Zealand fumbled its way to a 13-3 halftime lead. But the fire and fury associated with All Black teams stirred its way into the side in the second spell. Some solid forward work set up four tries as the men in black ran away with the game.
“There was progress and I’m pleased with that,” said Mitchell. “There was a lot more go-forward and we were able to put pressure on Ireland in certain areas.
“I was happy last week in that it was part of learning but I would sum up today by saying that we have made progress from there. We learned from things we didn’t do so well last week.
“There was urgency to the breakdown and that was required because Ireland are a team that always looks to shut you down. I thought our physical presence as the match wore on was quite apparent.”
With New Zealand reverting to a more simple game plan in the second spell and Andrew Mehrtens and halfbacks Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher turning the Irish defence with their kicking game, the All Blacks were able to operate in the right areas of the field.
“There was a lot of good field position. We expected another strong effort from Ireland and they took a long time to crack but the guys really stuck at it and that was very pleasing.”
And there was even a good old-fashioned dust-up in the second spell as a fired-up All Black pack looked to dominate an Irish eight.
“Physical presence is a really important part of the game. Players are asked to be a lot more accurate these days in terms of knowing what they have to do and definition of the laws but at the end of the day test rugby is still about body on body and urgency for the ball carrier. I think we made some really good steps in that area.”
But Mitchell wasn’t getting carried away and he only had to look back to the first half to see where his side had come from. The opening phase of the game brought six dropped balls, two missed lineout connections and even spilled high balls from Irish kicks. Memories of Carisbrook came flooding back and lingered throughout the opening spell until Aaron Mauger was able to make the one clean break after 35 minutes and put Leon MacDonald away for a try that gave the All Blacks some breathing space. With Italy and Ireland accounted for, only Fiji beckons for more fine-tuning next week in Wellington before the Tri Nations opens against the Wallabies in Christchurch on July 13.
Mitchell knows much is still to be done. He will demand 80 minutes like he got for the final 30 last night against the Fijians who last night lost to Samoa in their World Cup qualifying match.
“You are never where you want to be. There’s always room for improvement and we still have a lot of things to improve on. But I’m really pleased we have made progress on the areas we have been working on. That’s a good sign.”
Having eventually conquered the structured play of Ireland the All Blacks face the unpredictability of the Fijians. It’s not an ideal lead-in to the heavyweight contest that is the Tri Nations.
“The Fijians will present different challenges. They look to offload and give the ball a bit of air. I think they will be a bit more structured under Mac (McCallion) than they will have been in the past.”
Mitchell said he would use his rotation system again but wouldn’t go outside his 26-man squad. The players will have tomorrow off before reassembling in Wellington. Having relied heavily on his Crusaders backbone for the last two tests, look for a more rounded team this week. The return of Wellington’s Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga looks likely.
Mitchell got real impact from his bench with Doug Howlett, Marty Holah and, most noticeably, Kelleher making their mark. With Marshall’s pass hesitant again during the first half problems, Kelleher appeals as the slick distributor to better unleash the dangers out wide. And he backs himself – he scored with his second touch of the ball last night, cheekily darting to the line after being set up by some good forward work close to the Irish line.
“Most of the players have had two games now. We will look at the players who need another test match as we look forward to the Tri Nations,” said Mitchell.
“The guys who came off the bench made an impact and that’s part of operating as a 22-man team. People have questioned my use of the bench but tonight we felt we got it pretty much right.”