Peter Bills: All Blacks team is still work in progress

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The Independent Online

A Grand Slam in the northern hemisphere to accompany a Tri-Nations southern hemisphere title, to go with the IRB's Team of the Year award which accompanies the Coach of the Year title and the Young Player of the Year triumph.

What else could New Zealand win this year? A free bus pass to Heathrow from the British Government? It wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on, anyway.

But before the 'Land of the Long White Cloud' drowns in a sea of celebration, it might worth be pointing out a few home truths. Saturday's win at Twickenham over a hopelessly ill-disciplined England side confirmed that this All Blacks team is still a work in progress. England, even managing to play most of the match with 14 men, still stayed in touch with the strangely dysfunctional All Blacks for virtually an hour.

New Zealand looked surprisingly vulnerable to pressure and a side trying to play in its faces. For sure, the dam eventually broke. But this was far from the consummate, commanding performance we had anticipated from New Zealand at the end of their rugby year.

Perhaps the fact that we are just a few days short of December was the crucial point. It's a long old season from the start of Super 14 hostilities back in February and, hungry as these New Zealanders try to be every time they go onto the field, a fifth Test match in five Saturdays posed a challenge that was surprisingly tough for the All Blacks to conquer.

For a long time, there was a surprising lack of accuracy and precision in their game. England were so poor technically that an All Blacks side at its peak would have stormed away into a decisive lead by half time. That never happened because Dan Carter's kicking accuracy was awry and the New Zealanders were clearly surprised by the urgency of England's challenge. It was clumsy rather than classy but it was committed and it gave the All Blacks more than enough to think about.

England's problem was they couldn't escape the wrath of Irish referee Alain Rolland. Fifteen penalties, eight in kickable positions, four yellow cards – this was carnage of the kind England hadn't expected. True, they often had themselves to blame but Rolland penalised them heavily in the World Cup final last year – here, he was at it again. Does the guy have a problem with this country's representatives?

Nor was he consistent. All Blacks bodies kept conveniently rolling onto the England side at the breakdown to delay a rapid exodus of the ball yet they were never penalised. Strange that when England's players were committing murder in the Irish referee's eyes. And the last two yellow cards had an element of farcical misjudgement about them.

But those who suggest that could have made all the difference delude themselves. The key lesson arising from this game was that New Zealand could get away with a sub-standard performance (by their standards) and an erratic kicking display by Dan Carter yet still stroll to victory. That told you everything about the differing standards operating in the respective hemispheres.

So although the All Blacks ran away with it, the outstanding Ma'a Nonu picking up the man of the match award which epitomised his year, there is plenty for New Zealand to work on. At last, Ali Williams and Brad Thorn looked weary, Jerome Kaino didn't fire and even Richie McCaw was below his best.

There wasn't the same authority, power, control and penetration we have come to expect from the All Blacks. They can say defence was key, and their own efforts created the situation whereby England eventually cracked. But I doubt Graham Henry was fooled.

The new year and a new season looms. What Saturday at Twickenham did, was remind us that although this New Zealand side is promising, it has a way to go before it becomes completely invincible all of the time.

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