Blitz defence tactic mars Australia's win

Australia 23 - New Zealand 18
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The Independent Online

All Blacks captain Tana Umaga couldn't explain his team's concession of so many penalties in Sydney, a factor which eventually cost them the game and prevented them clinching the Tri-Nations title. Umaga seemed at a loss for words. "I can't say much about the penalties. We will just have to live with it. It's something for the coaches to take back on video and look at."

All Blacks captain Tana Umaga couldn't explain his team's concession of so many penalties in Sydney, a factor which eventually cost them the game and prevented them clinching the Tri-Nations title. Umaga seemed at a loss for words. "I can't say much about the penalties. We will just have to live with it. It's something for the coaches to take back on video and look at."

But if Umaga cannot explain, others can. What has happened in southern hemisphere rugby this season is that the blitz defence has taken precedent over all else. South Africa started it, in Christchurch against the All Blacks a fortnight ago, and New Zealand aped their tactics before 83,500 at Sydney's Telstra Stadium on Saturday night.

What the watching world got as a result, in both matches, was a dog's dinner of a game. Each was littered with penalties, sides loitering offside or cynically killing the ball, and two referees who were close to being overwhelmed by the tactic.

This trend, the first major move in the international game since the World Cup, threatens rugby's whole ethos as a creative, attacking sport. It poses serious questions for the sport's governing powers because, I suspect, no referee will have the appetite to sort out the mess alone. Referees, especially in the southern hemisphere, know that they will be pilloried if they constantly blow their whistle, or reduce the contest to farce by sending numerous players to the sin-bin. Therefore, sides are cynically exploiting that reluctance.

South Africa were constantly offside in Christchurch, as were the All Blacks in Sydney. Ironically, both teams conceded so many penalties they ended up losing the game to a single try, yet the two referees were still guilty of excessive leniency.

But, we are entitled to ask, if this trend is to become common, what sort of a game will we see in the future? No room will exist for attacking skills, no space for creativity. Players receiving the ball with opponents attached to it, are not going to achieve anything. It is a pretty unappealing scenario.

The only solution is for referees to crack down a lot harder than Australian referee Andy Cole in Christchurch and South African Jonathan Kaplan in Sydney. A total of one yellow card for persistent offending in those two games is a sorry testimony to the ludicrous acceptance of this wilful tactic. Much greater courage is needed to stamp out this nonsense.

This game, which was significant for being George Gregan's record-equalling 101st Test, will be remembered for having no structure, pattern or rhythm. The All Blacks looked much the stronger side in the first half, but gave a largely clueless performance, with poor decision-making and little direction. The Wallabies gradually improved, sustained by the penalty kicks that gave them a bridge back into the game. But they too were guilty of giving away penalties, especially whenever a try seemed possible.

Australia, for whom flanker George Smith was outstanding, reached half-time level at 12-12. They scored the only try of a game of 12 penalty goals, eight minutes after the break, when wing Lote Tuqiri dived over after New Zealand had lost possession and Australian No 8 David Lyons had powered his way to the line.

Thereafter, the All Blacks huffed and puffed but lacked the imagination, or space, to construct anything significant. It might have satisfied the Australians in terms of the result. But the game in general ought to be alarmed at this trend.

* New Zealand have decided to go ahead with next Saturday's Tri-Nations game against South Africa in Johannesburg after holding an emergency meeting to discuss reports of a security threat. The All Blacks met at their Sydney hotel after their defeat against Australia. "If the situation deteriorates, we can make a decision to abort," the New Zealand coach Graham Henry said. "It was a low security risk, one out of 10, and we've got that advice from the New Zealand government."

Australia: Try Tuqiri; Penalties Giteau (4), Burke (2). New Zealand: Penalties Carter (4), Spencer, Mehrtens.

Australia: C Latham; C Rathbone, S Mortlock, M Giteau, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); W Young, B Cannon, A Baxter, J Harrison, N Sharpe, G Smith, P Waugh, D Lyons. Replacements: M Dunning for Young (blood injury), 13-23 and 75. M Burke for Mortlock 17-26, and 52. J Paul for Cannon, 56, J Roe for Lyons, 68, D Vickermann for Sharpe, 68, W Sailor for Rathbone, 74.

New Zealand: M Muliaina; D Howlett, T Umaga (capt), D Carter, J Rokocoko; C Spencer, J Marshall; K Meeuws, K Mealamu, C Hayman, C Jack, A Williams, J Gibbes, M Holah, X Rush. Replacements: S Tuitupou for Carter, 43, A Mehrtens for Spencer, 50, G Somerville for Meeuws, 68, M Tuiali'i for Rush, 74.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).

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