Saturday, June 21, 2014

Hansen says focus on key areas paid off

New Zealand had reward in the areas they had been concentrating on in the lead-up to their 36-13 win over England in Hamilton on Saturday night.

Coach Steve Hansen said the things the All Blacks did well in their first half four-try blitz were what they worked hard on during the week. The skills had come through, the set piece had been good and the running lines had been great, the catching and passing was good and they finished off tries.

"From that point of view it was as good probably as you are going to get," he said.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said the second half frustration was attributable to England making the sort of start New Zealand wanted, and by making a couple of mistakes they had conceded a try.

"England kept playing and we went a wee bit hesitant, we didn't get our hands on the ball for quite a period," he said, adding that some frustration came in too when unable to build the required pressure.

McCaw said the team had got better each week but he felt they may have been guilty of not paying as much attention to their skills in the lead-up to the series, and the key now was not to regress before the regroup for the Rugby Championship.

Hansen said equalling the world record of 17 consecutive wins was pleasing from the point of view that they were trying to be successful in their approach of winning Test matches and the record was reward for that.

Hansen congratulated both sides for what he said was 'a fantastic three-match series'.

"In the past sometimes these June series have been under-rated by not bringing the best teams down and I think England paid us a massive amount of respect when they brought their best team down and it made for a wonderful three-match series," he said.

The first half performance had won the All Blacks the game in Hamilton and had been special. England had demonstrated their fighting spirit by making the second half a 7-7 draw, he said.

The series had seen several challenges thrown at the All Blacks and the second half had been another.

Hansen said the coaches had learnt a lot from the series and were not looking forward to the players going back to complete their Super Rugby programmes ahead of the Rugby Championship.

Backs coach Ian Foster said he was very pleased with starting debut centre Malakai Fekitoa who had done his basic roles very well and he had run some good, hard lines which required action from England's defence.

Hansen paid tributed to Foster's work with the backs in devising plays that challenged England's back defences, and which were exposed early by the All Blacks on Saturday.

"We got quality ball and we executed our skills better than we have in the last two Tests. Our running lines were better and our catch-pass was better so as a result of that we put them under a bit of pressure," he said.

Foster said he was conscious the midfield had been an area New Zealand hadn't executed that well against England over the last two years and they had to be at their best to achieve in that department which they hadn't done over the past two weeks.

Savea's class highlights the skills differences between sides

All Blacks wing Julian Savea's wondrous pick-up of a bouncing ball in scoring his second try in Saturday's 36-13 win over England demonstrated the difference in skills levels between the sides during the first half of the game.
That was England coach Stuart Lancaster's summation.

"I thought the All Blacks' demonstrated why they have won 36 out of 37 games and that's why they're the No.1 team in the world at the moment," he said.

The record was outstanding not only in a rugby sense but in international sport. Their wins were not just against teams ranked sixth, seventh or eighth, they were against the teams ranked, two, three and four.

"They have a great blend at the moment of athletic talent and ability, skill set , experience, continuity and consistency," he said.

Lancaster said the All Blacks thoroughly deserved the win on Saturday, especially on the back of their first half effort to lead 29-6 at the break.

He said he was disappointed with England's first half where they lacked the intensity they had demonstrated in the first two Tests. But he was proud of their effort in holding the All Blacks in the second half.

Lancaster said it was disappointing to concede the injury time try to the All Blacks when their second half effort had been much improved.

Assistant coach Andy Farrell said the side's defence had started poorly and got worse.

"From the start of the game to the short kick-off and a couple of errors and they are back in our 22 and they get such a quick lineout we are not even set and ready to go. So we are behind the eight ball all of a sudden and we are being reactive instead of going getting them which is what our defence has always been about.

"We certainly weren't near 80 percent and we needed all hands on deck," he said.

"The minute that you are behind the gain line it becomes a snowball and we didn't stop it for 25 minutes. The first half wasn't good enough and we have something in black and white now about what intensity looks like and what intensity definitely doesn't look like," he said.

Lancaster said while the tour was disappointing, a lot had been learned about the players during what was a period of transition for the side.

All Blacks dish up a dose of rugby reality in Hamilton

If you're going to make a statement at your last chance in a three-Test series you have already lost, you don't start by kicking the match opener out on the full - not against the All Blacks anyway.

Out to 29-6 at half-time, the All Blacks were only able to add a post-fulltime try in the second half, and thereby hangs the story of England's inaccuracies in their 36-13 loss at Hamilton's Westpac Stadium.

England first five-eighths Freddie Burns' starting blue became a talisman for his side who spent 40 minutes playing catch-up without getting sufficient quality ball to pressure the All Blacks, let alone give themselves confidence.

By comparison, the All Blacks played at their best in the series, for all of the first half, and England's drawing board looks set for more of a workout than the players were able to produce at Waikato Stadium.

Steve Hansen's sides, in 31 Tests have now scored 1004 points and 487 against, a ratio of 2:1 for only one loss. And in scoring three tries wing Julian Savea joined Jonah Lomu having scored eight tries against England.

Prop Tony Woodcock, who spent time in the sin-bin on the night, achieved his 12th winning appearance against England, the most by any player from any country, surpassing JPR Williams of Wales' record.

And the win was the 17th by New Zealand, equalling the world records set by Fred Allen's team of 1965-69 and Nick Mallett's Springbok team of the late 1990s. Richie McCaw has now captained New Zealand to a 17-win streak, a 16-win streak and two 15-win streaks.

Two chances, two tries, in the first eight minutes to the All Blacks spelled the difference in execution, intent, class, call it what you will. Just what went wrong in the second half will have the New Zealand brains trust occupied ahead of The Rugby Championship.

Wet weather, which must have given England some hope of pulling the All Blacks back to them, accounted for nothing in the home side's attitude from the outset.

Both the first two tries came from lineouts and each produced sparkling tries on the opposite side of the field for wing Julian Savea to make it 22 tries in 22 Tests and he should have had a 23rd in the 13th minute from yet another right-field lineout.

But after the double-round move provided more space for Nonu and Cruden to work their magic a forward pass was all that denied Savea the try. With halfback Aaron Smith adding two more by the 32nd minute, the game was, for all intents and purposes over.

Of concern for the All Blacks' management team will be the way their side went to sleep in the second half, and the scrum problems that ensued around the middle stages of the half when penalties were a too common occurrence for comfort.

England did play more determinedly in the second half, but they had to because the consequence was a rout of the highest order. Wing Marland Yarde scored the side's only try, and went close on two other occasions to look the most effective of the visitors.

On the list for English consideration will be the assured fact that Mike Brown may have arrived in New Zealand as a claimant for the world's best fullback but he's got at least two in front of him now with Ben Smith and Israel Dagg heading the list.

The need for faster and more intuitive thinking was also demonstrated at stages when, in longer phases, England looked to run out of direction and understanding of what they were trying to do. The pointless kicking to the New Zealand rearguard is another ploy England will need to feed into their tactical computer. It will probably tell them some following up from their players would help.

But with all members of the squad getting a run, the All Blacks have introduced new players in a successful environment to set themselves up for the Championship defence.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

All Blacks' instinctive approach pays series dividend

Many years ago the New Zealand Rugby Union issued a film, that's how long ago it was, called, 'It's a Running, Passing Game'. It was produced as the All Blacks moved out of a grim era of 10-man rugby revolving around lineouts and kicks to touch.

The result was a realisation that New Zealand had the capability to play a much more attractive style of game.

Now England have adopted a similar approach and the result was in evidence in the 28-27 Test match and Steinlager series win for the All Blacks in Dunedin on Saturday night.

The rugby as a consequence is much more exciting, the contest is a more thrilling spectacle and the game is set to go places.

England, as newcomers to the style in their most recent vintage, will take time to adapt. Coach Stuart Lancaster won't mind that once the pain of the series loss dissipates.

But the advantage New Zealand has in having adopted that 'running, passing game' approach so long ago is that at least two or three generations of rugby players have grown up with the notion of playing in confident manner with ball in hand no matter what position they play. And it shows out in close matches more often then not.

When the All Blacks needed to lift the tempo of the game to put distance between themselves and England on Saturday, they did so with genuine class and confidence. 

Sure England ended up within a point, but their last minute try was a token in the context of this game.

The ability to play such an up tempo game demands superior fitness and athleticism and it has to be said of the two units at the moment the All Blacks look more like athletes. That is not to say that will assure them of a clean sweep in the series, or even a victory at Twickenham later in the year, or even next year in the Rugby World Cup.

But fitness means a greater chance of assuredness and clear thinking in tighter moments of matches. That was evident in Auckland when they put their faith in their skills, and it was clear to see in Dunedin.

Familiarity is another factor and because they have had to secure close victories so often in the past they know that patience can be a virtue in such instances.

England came to New Zealand to learn, and they have learnt plenty so far. They have some exciting players. Mike Brown at fullback was assured, Marland Yarde is a handful on the wing, Manu Tuilagi has the potential to be explosive while Chris Robshaw has emerged as a quality leader and the locks Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes are combative while their front row of Joe Marler, Rob Webber and David Wilson are gutsy performers. 

What this group of England players have shown is that the world game is going to be much better for this series and the margin has closed between the top and those below.

However, under the pressure of their coaching staff, first and foremost, and from the great New Zealand public, that stadium of four and a half million, the All Blacks lifted their game to remove the high error rate of last week. There was much greater clarity in the set pieces and there was more purpose in back play.

Julian Savea did make a difference on the wing, Ma'a Nonu showed he is still a commanding influence as a mid-field bulwark while Conrad Smith is such a smooth achiever in the centres. But when you can replace Israel Dagg with Ben Smith who plays such a superb game, and who continually makes ground, you have some special players to call on.

On top of that, and remembering two of the best players in the world are still to rejoin the side in Dan Carter and Kieran Read, you have the sight of Richie McCaw demonstrating his continuing class with a strong display in the loose, backed up by a more prominent Liam Messam and Jerome Kaino.

Expect more improvement from England in Hamilton, but there is also still more to come from the home side.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

England face their toughest Test

Pardon me the cynicism, but who won the first Test?
Not England although if you had the misfortune to be stuck in England with only newspapers and websites to read you would have thought the Poms had hanged, drawn and quartered the All Blacks at Eden Park last weekend.

Now, with their A team on board, the popular view of England's press, who never have to play these games, will be that the win will surely be achieved in Dunedin on Saturday night.

England are ready to make a series of it.

Coupla things to think about.

The All Blacks will not be so far off the mark as they were in Auckland this time around.

Nothing quite focuses the All Blacks' minds more than a below par performance. Their ability, their manhood, their right to wear the jersey has been questioned. Not challenges to be issued lightly by visitors.

Dry ground in Dunedin. Now there is no doubt the Pom backs are well capable of throwing the ball around to good effect. Even when England were thrashed by the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup semi-final in Cape Town they still managed to score four tries. Whether their backs of the moment are as good as Rory Underwood, Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott is another matter.

But the difference for New Zealand lies in the ball-handling of the forwards. Here there is an ocean of ability between the sides and the tide runs in favour of the home team.

And Manu Tuilagi, bullocking runner that he is. He has been compared to Jonah Lomu! He's not even in the same home straight as the legendary wing.

Wonder how Tuilagi goes at turning around to tidy up kicks behind him?

The big question is how long it will take either of the Aarons, Smith or Cruden, to sort that one out? I'm picking it will be very early in the piece. Mind you, some thinking outside the box, pardon the pun – older readers will understand that quip – could be not to send a kick his way at all, so that he is left wondering when it is going to come.

Then there's the need to field high kicks. Whenever this thought process is involved it is hard not to go past: possums, headlights, Quade Cooper, Richard Kahui, World Cup semi-final in 2011, if you get my drift.

Some predictions for the game: the haka will be questioned yet again by the Pom media (after all these years they still don't get it)
, the game will be all-action, the referee will be the target of English media criticism win or lose, some England player will do something silly under the pressure of the occasion, Owen Farrell will struggle with goal-kicking in the stadium, Liam Messam will be much more obvious around the track and Jerome Kaino will be an even greater target for England attention than Richie McCaw, who will revel in the subsequent freedom.

It should be a cracker.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Grass roots initiative to honour Eric Kohlhase's memory

Influential player and administrator in softball and rugby Eric Kohlhase is to have his memory perpetuated with a trust in his name to continue the type of work he was synonymous with.

Kohlhase, a former New Zealand softball representative, and an Auckland Marist rugby player, died in 2011 but not before his work in sport had been recognised by the presentation of a Halberg Lifetime Achievement Award.
Launched in Auckland at the Marist Softball Club, a location in keeping with the Kohlhase name, the Trust aims to provide opportunities for youth to take part in sport, diamond sports especially but not just those games.

The Trust will be headed by Auckland media identity and one-time New Zealand softball team manager Doug Golightly (left), and has on its board the coach of the world championship-winning Black Sox team of 2013 Eddie Kohlhase (right), his sister Ruth and the captain of the team and the Trust's ambassador Rhys Casley.

Among its aims the Trust wants to teach the value of team work while also boosting the need to have fun in sport in both schools and club contests.

They also hope to see sport used as a means of improving academic performance and behaviour.

It is not only players who are to be targeted but also coaches and volunteer administrators.

Mentors will also be sought to help pass on the message of the need for balance between life and sport.

The Trust also wants to be a conduit for schools and clubs in seeking funding applications while promoting the work of schools and clubs in seeking sponsorship partners.

In speaking at the official launch of the Trust, Golightly said it intended to be 'a hands up, not a hands out' type of operation.