Rugby Union: Mehrtens left sitting in defence

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The Independent Online
IMPRESSED AS I was by New Zealand's first-half domination of Australia at Eden Park yesterday, I am not yet ready to declare them as top favourites for the Rugby World Cup. There were one or two aspects of their play I thought were suspect.

For all the ball they had in that first half, they showed a lack of variety and thought that I would be concerned about if I was their coach. They should have had a couple more tries from all that possession.

You must give credit to the Australian defence for keeping the try count down to that solitary mistake by Joe Roff which let in Justin Marshall for the simplest of tries. But the All Blacks were so repetitive that they made it easier for the Australians to close them down.

The other worry is Andrew Mehrtens. It isn't easy to express concerns about a player who kicks nine penalties out of nine attempts to equal the world record but while I am a true admirer of Mehrtens' kicking ability and can find little fault with his overall game going forward, his defence is very poor.

Despite the fact that he has been working on his tackling and has bulked up recently, he is still a liability in that department. He fell off a couple of tackles yesterday and the Aussies broke through.

Opposing teams will not be blind to that weakness but, in any case, the outside half occupies the favourite channel for attackers and can't afford to lack the ability to plug the gap.

But you have to search hard for faults in other areas and up front they are much too good and strong for Australia, who approach the World Cup with a big question mark about their scrum. I know that they pushed New Zealand back for George Gregan's try in the second half but that was due more to the All Black forwards losing concentration.

In the second half the Aussies looked very dangerous with a bit of ball and they are going to be a much better team when the skipper John Eales and outside half Stephen Larkham return from injury. Larkham, especially, is sorely missed and Tim Horan is by no means an adequate replacement. The big weakness that showed up in Horan's play yesterday was in the kicking from his hands.

The pressure kicks, the up-and-unders, are so vital to a team and Horan just couldn't deliver good enough kicks to give New Zealand problems. Larkham would have given them far more to worry about. Added to which, Larkham is the catalyst for Australia. He sparks them off and it is no slight to Horan that he found it so difficult as stand-in. In his normal position as centre partner to the excellent Daniel Herbert, Horan is a very valuable player.

The Welsh referee Derek Bevan had a decent game, although the southern hemisphere players always find our refs a bit tedious and over-fussy. Extra pressure would have been put on him by the outburst of the South African coach Nick Mallett last week when he accused the All Blacks of cheating.

Cheating is too strong a word but I know exactly what he means. The Blacks take liberties and play the referee to the limit, looking to gain every possible advantage. It is the sort of gamesmanship every good team employs and New Zealand are better at it than most.

Norman Maxwell was twice pulled up by Bevan, once for pulling back a chaser and once for kicking the ball away, and his actions were typical of their approach. They start the game five yards offside and will remain five yards offside if the referee lets them. If he does pull them up, they'll only go back three yards so they are still two yards to the good.

By complaining, however, Mallett is practising gamesmanship himself because he knows that referees will be watching New Zealand more closely as a result. It is all part of the psychological battle that is building up for the World Cup and there's a lot to happen yet, so there is no point in jumping to early conclusions.

New Zealand are coming good again but there is still plenty of room and time for the others to improve. The Tri-Nations will continue to give us interesting pointers but it'll come down to who can produce the best form in October.