No silver lining around the All Black cloud
rugby365 columnist Steve Farrell takes a look at the dark clouds that are hovering over New Zealand and their coach Graham Henry, while he also explains why Peter de Villiers should experiment with his Springbok selections.
All is not well in the land of the Silver Fern after the Wallabies condemned them to their second straight defeat in Sydney at the weekend, amid fresh calls to sack Graham Henry.
It was a torrid day for the All Blacks as Robbie Deans' men ran out comfortable (34-19) winners in the end, a margin that surprised plenty of people!
The 28-30 loss to the Springboks as well as the defeat in Sydney has put serious pressure on Henry and his coaching staff, and after last year's disastrous World Cup campaign, the New Zealand public are demanding that heads roll. Henry will be feeling the heat, of that there is no doubt.
The build up to the Bledisloe Cup encounter on Saturday was all about Robbie Deans versus his fellow countryman, Henry.
There was only one winner and now some serious questions need to be asked as to whether Graham Henry has reached his sell-by date. The majority New Zealanders wanted Henry to be shown the door after last year's World Cup, with Robbie Deans being the 'peoples choice' as Henry's replacement.
I feel the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) have made a serious error in letting Deans slip through their fingers. The fact that he coached the old enemy to a victory over the All Blacks on Saturday would have rubbed more salt into the festering wounds of the All Blacks.
Deans wanted to coach the All Blacks. He made that clear. His record at the mighty Crusaders made him the obvious choice to succeed Henry and bring a new dawn to All Black rugby.
It was not to be and the always on-the-ball Aussies snapped him up, much to the delight of all Aussie supporters. Deans is an astute rugby coach. He knows the game backwards and I have a feeling that the NZRU are going to rue their decision to re-appoint Henry and not opt for Deans.
The ex-Crusaders coach has been tasked with guiding the Wallabies to the 2011 World Cup, which will ironically be held in New Zealand. It's along way away but just imagine if he got his hands on the Web Ellis Cup in the colours of Australia. Wouldn't that be a knife to the throat to all All Black fans?
The Australian victory has put them in the pound seats in the Tri-Nations with nine points from their two games, whilst the All Blacks and Springboks have five points from three games apiece. The Boks, however, have three home games on the trot, one against the All Blacks and two against Australia. Three wins for the Boks will put them in a very good position to win the Tri-Nations and considering their very good home record over Australia and the All Blacks' poor form, this is a real possibility. It all makes for an exciting finale to this year's tournament. But the Boks will need to improve on their rather sheepish performance against Australia if they want to lift the Tri-Nations trophy for only the third time.
Looking ahead to Saturday's all important encounter in Auckland between the All Blacks and Wallabies, one gets the feeling that if Henry's charges lose a third straight Test match, every New Zealander and his pet sheep will be baying for Henry's blood.
Henry will be desperate that his skipper Richie McCaw returns to action as his absence has been hard felt. Rodney So'oialo is not a No.6 and Daniel Braid was hopelessly off the pace in his long-awaited return to the All Black starting line-up.
McCaw's anticipated return will be a massive boost to the beleaguered All Blacks. And the news that Wallaby star loose forward Rocky Elsom has been ruled out of the Eden Park clash will swing things the All Blacks way. A win is the only option for them. Anything less will spell disaster and possibly the beginning of the end for Henry.
Looking ahead to the Springboks rather bizarre one off Test against Argentina on August 9, Peter de Villiers would do well to experiment somewhat with his side. Why on earth the powers that be have scheduled this match in the middle of the Tri-Nations, only they will know, but looking on the positive side, it does give De Villiers the opportunity to fine tune his side ahead of the All Blacks clash a week later.
One such area is at flyhalf. Butch James has struggled to regain the sparkling form that he showed last year which may prompt De Villiers to give either Ruan Pienaar of Peter Grant a run in the No.10 jersey.
Early indications are that De Villiers will opt for Pienaar, who has failed to impress so far in the No.10 jersey. Peter Grant made a welcome return for Western Province on the weekend and was the catalyst in his team's 50-3 victory. He really does attack the advantage line with aplomb and has the ability to offload at the right time, as was the case on Saturday, where he showed some deft touches throughout the 80 minutes. One thing weighing against Grant is his kicking game. He doesn't possess the skills of a Pienaar or a Frans Steyn is this regard and lacks the distance needed in international rugby.
That said, he would feel aggrieved if Pienaar got the nod ahead of him for the Argentina game as the Sharks utility back has yet to prove himself in the pivot position, whereas Grant is coming off a solid Super 14 campaign for the Stormers. But Butch should still be the first choice when the Tri-Nations resumes a week later.
Fullback Conrad Jantjes didn't have a good tour of Australia and New Zealand so the return of Percy Montgomery is a must if the Boks are to win all three of their remaining games. The 98-test veteran doesn't have the pace of Jantjes but more than makes up for his aging hamstrings with his positional play (something Jantjes needs to work on) and the calmness that he seems to bring to the Bok backline. We could even see the evergreen Montgomery run out onto his beloved Newlands turf for his 100th Test cap, wouldn't that be a moment to savour!
At the back of the scrum Ryan Kankowski deserves a run ahead of Pierre Spies. Kankowski has been quiet since coming off a superb Super 14, but in fairness he hasn't been given an opportunity. He started against Italy but was stretchered off in the first half with concussion and hasn't featured much in the Tri-Nations. Spies let himself down against Australia. He started off strongly with some powerful runs but his hands let him down on a few occasions and he definitely has not regained the form that he showed at the beginning of 2007.
Like Henry, De Villiers will feel the heat if the Boks fail to deliver on home turf. He has the players at his disposal, in fact the current crop are among the most talented South Africa has produced for ages, but De Villiers needs to harness that talent into a winning unit. The next month will provide show whether he has the metal to succeed at the highest level.
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