Despite the All Blacks’ 43-10 victory over Georgia yesterday morning, which secured them a place in the RWC quarterfinals, it was another unconvincing performance from a side that has failed to produce at this tournament so far.
A grinding win against a physical and tough Georgian side, with very little open play and plenty of stoppages, have allowed some to shift the blame away from the Kiwis.
But three games in, we keep beating the same drum.
Press conference after press conference we are told the All Blacks will step up in the next game, the errors will decrease, the continuity will flow and we’ll score more points.
Press conference after press conference we give credit to a ‘tough opposition that really turned up to play.’
And its beginning to cause concern.
It doesn’t matter how well a ‘minnow’ team steps up, when you’re the best in the world by a country mile and you have the most talent, arguably in World Cup history, you don’t scrape through for a win.
Sure, you might make some mistakes, look a bit rusty and not perform at your best, but with the greatest squad in the world, four years of planned buildup, and an amazing record, it shouldn’t happen consistently.
So, should we be worried?
There seems to be two distinct schools of thought on the issue.
The first says that we can’t read anything into these games. The group games are arbitrary warmups, used to build combinations and practice key strategies. Coupled with the fact that minnow teams are stepping up, we’re having to grind out tough wins, and qualification to the knockout stages is what really matters.
The other school suggests that for all the talent the All Blacks have, their record/form heading into this World Cup as well as the elite coaching staff on their side, the performances they have churned out have been below expectations.
I am beginning to see merit in the latter.
Don’t get me wrong, my loyalty will always be with the boys in black and I still hold true that we have the ability and the determination to win the cup again, however I’ve lost some confidence.
Both Grant Fox, in an interview with Tony Veitch, and Steven Hansen at the after-match press conference, have stressed that there is nothing to fear.
Fox in particular lambasted Veitch for the notion that All Blacks’ fans have something to get scared about and assured everyone that it was all under control.
However, when Veitch asked Fox if he was happy with how the first three games of this tournament have gone, his response was cold; no, we’re frustrated.
And it shows in the stats.
18 handling errors in the game against Georgia. That’s almost an error every four minutes!
From a side that hasn’t lost its No. 1 World Ranking since 2009, with arguably one of the best squads in recent history, its just not good enough.
Couple this with the fact that Carter looked shaky with his kicking, Slade is sidelined with an injury, and TJ Peranara was the backup first-five, it begs the question of whether or not Sopoaga should have been on that flight over to England four weeks ago and brings back thoughts of 2011.
To rebuke some of these claims, both Hansen and Fox have mentioned the fact that, quite characteristically, All Blacks’ fans are always last to applaud another teams performance. If the scoreline is tight, we immediately heap the blame on our own players instead of recognising an astonishing showing of heart and skill from the opposition.
It is true, the minnow teams have stepped up dramatically in this tournament. Not a single game has had a team score more than 65 points, and we don’t even have to mention the upsets caused by Japan and Georgia earlier in the tournament. And yes, Georgia did indeed play well against New Zealand yesterday morning.
However, that doesn’t excuse poor kicking, handling errors, silly penalties and a lack of cohesion.
Those are the areas the All Blacks pride themselves in. Mentally, they are prepared better. Physically, they are prepared better. Strategically, they are unrivalled. So why is it, that we haven’t seen the All Blacks shine?
Is it just a case of ‘its just that sort of World Cup’? Where the big names just aren’t able to play solid rugby against the weaker opposition?
Well we know for a fact that this isn’t true. Both Ireland and Australia are looking more dangerous then ever.
Australia’s performance against England this morning was nothing short of amazing.
They have finally found the first-five they have been looking for in Bernard Foley. They have offensive weapons in Folau, Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, and they have two of the world’s best craftsman at the breakdown, Michael Hooper and David Pocock and ultimately, they have what a lot of the other teams lack; execution and cohesion.
They won the Rugby Championship, they beat the All Blacks in Sydney, and they by far look like the best team at this tournament.
Its not to say the All Blacks won’t do it. And if history is anything to go by, the boys will step up when it matters and they’ll deliver the results.
But you can’t help but feel a little apprehensive, when the best squad in the world is not performing at its best, and the other top teams are just beginning to peak.
In my mind, Steve Hansen and his men have one more game to get it right. If they don’t show a convincing performance against Tonga, it could dent their confidence severely heading into what should be an unparalleled quarter-final challenge.
Still, we believe in them. We believe they have the talent, the skill, the mindset and the heart to win it all.
I’ve still got my money on them, and its not time to sound the alarm just yet, but it would just be nice to give us fans a little peace of mind.