Jack Lewars and Chris Gollop
Rarely has the saying ‘game of two halves’ been more accurate that in New Zealand’s World Cup opener against Tonga. Whilst the All Blacks dominated the first half, with two tries each for Richard Kahui and Israel Dagg, the second half was a much more even, attritional affair, which New Zealand just edged 12-7. Significant credit must go to the Tongans for their revival and the powerful efforts of their forwards – but the recovery also highlights the fact that New Zealand are not in as comfortable a position as they would like.
In many ways, the All Blacks are in familiar territory. They are entering another World Cup as favourites, and yet do not know what their best team is. Graham Henry’s selection threw up a few surprises, not least in the back three, where he preferred Dagg to Mils Muliaina. Although Dagg played well, dropping Muliaina, a veteran of 98 tests and consistently the best fifteen in the world since the retirement of Chris Latham, was a bold move. It also creates its own pressure – as when Jonny Wilkinson was on the bench for England, one poor showing from Dagg will immediately lead to calls for the more experienced, more proven player to return.
On the wings, the success of Kahui fails to hide one of the shocks of the New Zealand World Cup squad – the lack of specialist wingers. Kahui and Isaia Toeava, the other starting winger, are both centres, with Gear and Sivivatu jettisoned from the squad entirely (how many teams would love to be able to pick them?). This leaves Corey Jane and Zac Guildford as the only true wingers in the squad, and it would be brave in the extreme to trust Kahui and Toeava against the excellent French back three. Although Dagg’s chance at full-back is probably a wake-up call for Muliaina, the choice of wings shows hesitancy in the selectors’ minds. For a nation with such a myriad of talent both at centre and wing, it is remarkable that players have been picked out of position.
In the second row, Brad Thorn and Ali Williams were effective in combating the Tongans’ physicality, at least for the first half. However, there was ample evidence of the downside of this partnership – its volatility. Williams in particular is prone to stupidity, as he showed with several scuffles during the game, and he is a constant discipline worry. He is essentially New Zealand’s Danny Grewcock: a wonderful rugby player as long as he stays on the pitch.
Finally, the scrum-half position remains a problem, as it has since the departure of Byron Kelleher for Europe. Cowan had a poor game against Tonga, throwing several wayward passes and seeming rattled by the attention he received near the ruck. When Weepu came on in the second half there was a greater degree of control, but New Zealand also seemed to clam up. Very few World Cup winning sides have come into the tournament without an established no. 9, and yet this is where the All Blacks find themselves.
What this adds up to is a side that doesn’t know its own composition. Although New Zealand are perhaps victims of their own ability, in that an abundance of riches creates selection dilemmas, it is far from ideal that so many picks are still debateable.
At the last World Cup, Graham Henry and his sidekicks pursued a policy of rotation, with two parallel fifteens, which did not allow the All Blacks to build up any continuity or rhythm. Although it seems that this did not diminish the confidence of their supporters (see this 2007 article for an hilarious instance of hubris), it almost certainly contributed to their quarter-final exit.
This time round, the New Zealand coaching staff are keen to avoid this error, with Steve Hansen speaking about having a core of ten or twelve players and rotating around that. The danger, however, is that a desire to protect these core players from injury, and a number of positions in which the first pick is not evident, will lead to constant chopping and changing. The All Blacks must aim to play their best side in every match: momentum and familiarity are crucial to winning tight games. Unfortunately for them, they seem fairly unsure what their best side is – and a good start against the Tongans has not provided any conclusive evidence to help them.
New Zealand must finally decide, after today’s game, what their best combinations are, in the centres, the back three, at half back and in the pack. Then they need to stick with those selections and build momentum towards a long-awaited World Cup victory. And, of course, pray that Carter and McCaw don’t sustain injuries.