Rugby Union: Confessions of an All Black disciple

Ray Cairns gives a New Zealand journalist's insight into the tour so far
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The Independent Online
First impressions

Familiar territory, familiar weather but you never get used to that first step off the jumbo, unloading the trunks into Britain's grey autumn. Dark at four. Son 'phoned later, 30 degrees back home - too hot for a T shirt.

Rout and about in Wales

After drubbing a couple of Welsh sides, and scoring 20 tries, the All Blacks are deified as the finest ever New Zealand rugby team - even the best the world has seen. British teams are given no chance by their media and many of their past players. If I hadn't been here so many times before it would be startling to experience the "set 'em up, knock 'em down" mentality of my northern European colleagues. Returning to a Swansea club after the Stradey Park rout I felt constrained to point out that even Cullen blew a couple of tries, ignoring Wilson at his right hand.

Locals think I'm being mock serious, falsely modest or just taking the piss. Not so. I've been reporting on the All Blacks for more than 30 years and you gain little if you settle for less than perfection. I look back 16 months to a sublime All Blacks performance against the Wallabies in rain-lashed Wellington. Any serious rugby follower would reflect on just six (six!) errors made in the whole of that match.

On a frosty night in Pontypridd, Wales A gets a few minutes in the sun as our "Dirt- Trackers" (including three new men) take time to achieve familiarity. Brightest feature? Little and Lomu return in style. It was a B Test - the second best of each nation - but because New Zealand B win handsomely, scoring seven tries, suddenly they have become the second best team in the world. Too simplistic. Welsh rugby is in a sorry state. Players who wouldn't get a match in a senior club side back in Christchurch (where they're not paid for playing) are being paid a disproportionate amount.

Stroll at Landslide Road

What a hiding for the Irish (seven tries again). So the drum-beats continue to roll on the same day that England and Australia muddle through a boring 15-15 draw at Twickenham. The All Blacks in a different world? Hang on again. We knew the Irish would be terriers in those first 25 minutes; they always are. Incidentally, what we found out afterwards was that the All Blacks couldn't do their usual preparation. Try stretching on a dressing- room floor that has been polished so proudly you can see your face in it.

And had they been reading the British Press? There was some uncustomary dizziness about the early stages, flashy flinging around of the ball before establishing control.

Fancy letting an opposition hooker, even one as good as Keith Wood, score two tries. But after getting 16 points in the 11 minutes before the break, the All Blacks got back to basics: kept the ball in hand, hit-up after hit-up after hit-up until the rugby league-minded called out that six tackles were up, then unleash the backs. The middle third of the match produced 40 points without reply - that puts 63-15 in perspective.

What did England expect?

Among the players, if they are reading their own Press, a devil of a hiding. So much so that Clive Woodward's so-called Emerging XV at Huddersfield included seven Lions and 12 Test men all-told. Only three of the New Zealanders had hit double figures as internationals. Still, this was the best performance so far. Much better form from Spencer, though he is not a real challenge to Mehrtens, and breathtaking stuff from Miller who was not - despite what some were writing in these parts - seen back home as a threat to Cullen.

What a wonderful venue that McAlpine Stadium but what an atmosphere at Old Trafford. for the first Test against England. Forget the scoreboard and look at the All Blacks by comparison with their best standards. Four out of 10, perhaps - the English seven. But the All Blacks still won by 17 points (they have never bettered that over here) so why did England do a lap of honour and why did the band belt out "Land of Hope and Glory"? Was it the "Last Night of the Poms"?

If this was an accomplishment, England are setting their standards too low. Strange that the main points to come out of the match at Old Trafford seemed to be that there was honour and glory in defeat and also that there was still so much hysteria about the haka which has been performed here since the All Blacks first toured 92 years ago. One columnist seized on that and claimed that the "all-Maori team of 1888-89 did the haka". Sorry, there were four non-Maoris on board and for sure it was not a New Zealand representative team. The haka is a tradition, not a challenge as such. Hardly any of the players know the meaning of the words. As Justin Marshall said: "It's just something we do."

Trouble in the wild west

So to Bristol. OK it was an ERP (English Rugby Partnership) that took the field at Ashton Gate, but there was a strong whiff of a South West XV about the side and they played like it. They took on the "Dirt Trackers" and embarrassed them, and having said that, this was about as average a team as New Zealand could field on this tour.

The real Test at Twickers

England beware. The All Blacks know better than to believe in their own publicity. They will have to play better than they did at Old Trafford. And I question whether England can.

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