Rugby Union: Decline of the All Blacks likely to be temporary

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The Independent Online
THE MOST interesting development of the last year has been the decline of New Zealand's strength, relative to Australia and South Africa. Why, they have lost almost as many games on the trot as Bath. So far the authorities have stayed loyal to their affable and intelligent coach, John Hart - who is very different from the grizzled monsters that have been presented to us in the past.

I have never agreed with the modern view, in rugby, football and cricket alike, that coaches or managers (or whatever they are called) are invariably to blame when things go wrong - that they have what lawyers call "absolute liability". By the same reasoning, I do not think they should always be praised as supermen when things go right.

But there is little doubt that Hart bears some of the responsibility for his country's uncertain performance of late. At outside-half he has the reverse of Clive Woodward's perennial English problem. While Woodward is struggling to find one player who can fill the position, Hart has two performers of world class in Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer.

Oddly enough, this luxury of choice seems to have affected the form of both players. Mehrtens' goal-kicking has gone awry. When he has been dropped to make way for Spencer, the kicking at goal has been even more fragile. Christian Cullen may be the best attacking full-back in the world - challenged on recent evidence by Matt Burke, though not by Percy Montgomery. But Cullen is even less reliable as a goal-kicker than Spencer.

What Hart clearly has to do is make up his mind about the outside-half position and whether he is going to accommodate the discarded player at second five-eighths or at centre. He should then find a completely new and reliable kicker at goal.

It has been evident since his return from his medical trouble that Jonah Lomu is not the player he was. Whether his kidneys are better or not - one hopes they are - his heart does not seem to be in it. He appears to be going through the motions. He resembles a young fast bowler who possesses great pace and menace but whose back suddenly lets him down. He has an operation; it is successful; he returns; but somehow it is not the same. The confidence has gone.

At the same time, players, in England at any rate, who were alarmed by Lomu's sheer size during the last World Cup have become used to dealing with big backs. Anyone who has had to tackle, say, Va'aiga Tuigamala week in and week out, or Scott Gibbs for that matter, is not going to be intimidated by Lomu, even though he is built differently from Tuigamala or Gibbs.

The big back is a development that has come to rugby union from rugby league. There is another development, arrived by the same route, which also renders players such as Lomu less dangerous than they were four years ago. This is the two or even three-player tackle, which is not pretty and smacks of bullying, but is nevertheless both legal and effective.

And then there is the New Zealand pack. Few expected either the forwards or the whole side to miss Sean Fitzpatrick quite as much as they evidently have. Taine Randall, who was pushed into the captaincy too young and with too little experience, is clearly not an adequate substitute. He may also be at some difficulty in holding his place at No 6, come the World Cup.

There is the further question of body mass. New Zealand, to their credit, have never gone for sheer bulk. If a slightly more accomplished forward is up for selection against another who happens to be a stone heavier, it is the better rather than the heavier player who wins the vote; whereas in many other rugby countries the selectors' vote would go the other way.

The New Zealand selection policy has, until very recently, been completely vindicated. They have gone in for fit, hard, raw-boned forwards. As one Lions forward who has played against them, said to me: "They're very difficult to play against because they're all knees and knuckles and elbows, sharp edges everywhere."

The current first choice New Zealand pack weighs less than that not only of South Africa, Australia, England and France, but of Wales as well. The major difference these days is that heavy packs are, with all the training that goes with professionalism, as fit and fast as the traditional New Zealand eight.

But the decline of New Zealand is, I am sure, only temporary. Provided they can sort out their goal-kicking difficulties, they may well turn out to be the best bet for the World Cup.