One area, a single phase of the play holds the key to the entire Tri-Nations match in Auckland on Saturday between New Zealand and Australia.
It could also be the crucial factor in determining the whole future of All Blacks coach Graham Henry, a man under searing pressure after two successive defeats, the latest his team’s heavy 34-19 loss to the Wallabies in Sydney last Saturday.
As ever in rugby union, the crucial influence on this vital game which sees Robbie Deans’ first return to New Zealand as coach of the Australians, will be the referee. If South African official Mark Lawrence allows New Zealand to scrummage, then the All Blacks are capable of gaining a decisive advantage in that sphere of play that could tilt the match their way.
But if Lawrence, like his fellow South African official Craig Joubert simply doesn’t officiate the scrums, the wily Wallabies, as cunning as a wagon load of monkeys under Deans, can steal the glory and end a 22 year run without victory at Eden Park.
New Zealand had a clear superiority in the set scrums in Sydney but the Wallabies were allowed to collapse them with impunity. That meant their back row could roam and they did so to mighty effect, turning the breakdown into the vital phase of the Test match.
But it could be different this week. IRB referees’ co-ordinator Paddy O’Brien shares the criticisms of Joubert’s performance in that respect in Sydney. You can bet he will be discussing the issue with tomorrow’s referee before the Test match starts.
O’Brien told me this week “Teams should be allowed to scrummage. It is not on for referees to let scrums go down and just allow play to continue, unless the ball is by then at the No. 8’s feet. Referees need to learn to adjudicate at scrum time; it’s not good enough for them to carry on when the scrum goes down on engagement.
“I want the referees to be accurate; I don’t want them to be guessing. But they need to take charge of the scrums rather than let the players do it.”
Such a message is bad news for the Australians. Their scrum weakness remains, and if the All Blacks props Greg Somerville and Tony Woodcock are allowed a fair contest, they will expose Benn Robinson and Al Baxter, their opposite numbers. A retreating Wallaby scrum would tie in the breakaways, George Smith and Phil Waugh, who plays in place of the injured Rocky Elsom, and create in all likelihood, a different game, especially with Richie McCaw back in the New Zealand side after injury.
The Australians have lorded it at the breakdown in the last two weekends, in which time they have defeated South Africa and New Zealand. Once again, this too will be a crucial phase of the match.
The omens are not good for Graham Henry. As if losing ten class players overseas was not enough, he still had doubts on the eve of this match over the scrum half and hooker positions, due to injuries. The dramatic recall of half-back Piri Weepu to the squad this week tells you of the rising panic and threadbare resources now confronting the All Blacks.
Deans’ gamble to include Phil Waugh and George Smith reveals precisely where he believes the critical phase of the new game under the ELVs, lies; namely, the breakdown. But with McCaw back and maybe a referee switched on to the Australians’ scrum tricks it could be different this time.
If pride ever meant anything within New Zealand rugby then this surely is the moment to demonstrate it.
New Zealand: M. Muliaina; R. Kahui, C. Smith, M. Nonu, S. Sivivatu; D. Carter, J. Cowan/ P. Weepu/ A. Ellis; A. Woodcock, A. Hore/K. Mealamu, G. Somerville, B. Thorn, A. Williams, J. Kaino, R. McCaw (Capt.), R. So’oialo.
Australia: A. Ashley-Cooper; P. Hynes, S. Mortlock (captain), B. Barnes, L. Tuqiri; M. Giteau, L. Burgess; B. Robinson, S. Moore, A. Baxter, J. Horwill, N. Sharpe, P. Waugh, G. Smith, W. Palu.
Referee: M. Lawrence (South Africa)Reuse content