Mark Reason: Three All Blacks tries from the end of the earth
Last updated 11:41, June 26 2018
Ben Smith scores one of the best tries of the series in the third test on Saturday.
OPINION: What a weird series that was. We were promised champagne rugby but had to settle for bottles of New Zealand sparkling wine that left the back of the throat a little dry. And who were more bewildered by the end of it, the crowds or the referees. Ho hum and hum ho, at least from the All Blacks’ point of view there were enough bubbly moments to set up what should be a coruscating Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks scored 19 tries in the series and several were things of beauty. My three favourites, in no particular order, all had wildly different recommendations. And it should please the management that the team found so many different ways of scoring.
I loved the turnover try in the first test although, on a cautionary note, it was one of only two turnover tries that the All Blacks scored in the series. The All Blacks do not look so efficient in this department now that Wayne Smith has gone.
Luke Whitelock provided the All Blacks with a number of crucial links to their play.
But the glory in the All Blacks first turnover try was in the work done by the forwards. Luke Whitelock ripped the ball from a Frenchman. And although Whitelock lacks the vital ball-carrying skills of a Read or a Vermeulen or a Vunipola, he provided the All Blacks with a number of crucial links to their play and can be pleased with his series.
After Whitelock had knocked the ball to the ground, Scott Barrett flicked it through his legs to Aaron Smith. It did not look like much. You could almost miss it. But it was a dazzling piece of thoughtful skill from a forward and created the time for the counter to flourish.
Scott Barrett, who was the pick of the brothers during the series, is giving Steve Hansen a problem. There is no doubt that the All Blacks missed Brodie Retallick. The power and presence and skill of the man would have subdued the French pack in a way that the All Blacks sometimes struggled to do.
Scott was the best of the Barrett brothers against France.
But Barrett is coming close to edging Whitelock as Retallick’s partner. Whitelock wasn’t at this best against France, perhaps slowed by the captaincy, but he was still a major part of the demolition job that the All Blacks did on the French lineout. It’s a good problem for the All Blacks to have.
Anyway, back to that try. Luke Whitelock has turned the ball over, Scott Barrett has flicked it through his legs, Aaron Smith passes out to Codie Taylor. And what a series the hooker had as the fast and skilful forward who played on the flanks. Taylor gave half a dummy and then straightened the line to draw in the French defence. Conrad Smith would have been proud of such artistry.
Then when the moment was just right, Taylor gave the ball to Damian McKenzie. So much skill from the forwards to make the room for Mckenzie to burn France with his speed. It was a wondrous try.
Next up on the hit parade was the lineout try in the first half of the final test. Any forwards coach would have been purring. Jackson Hemopo had just come on as a blood replacement for Shannon Frizell. First cap, first lineout. So what do the All Blacks do? They fake a move and throw it to Hemopo at the front. Stand up, boy.
Whitelock dummies to receive the ball in the middle, where France expected it to go. Aaron Smith and Scott Barrett make moves to the back, as further decoys. Then Taylor throws it quickly to Hemopo. The decoys have completely fooled the French so that Hemopo does not have to use time by jumping and allow France to recover.
He takes the ball standing, the props bind straight in either side, Sam Whitelock and Matt Todd join as the second wave and Luke Whitelock and Taylor sweep in at the back. The timing was so quick and the deception so complete that France only got a lock and a prop in any sort of position to defend. They were swept over the line. Clever coaching and a smart call, presumably by Sam Whitelock, to run it when Hemopo had just come on.
The final pick also comes from the final test. And no, I don’t mean that try off the scrum although Steve Hansen was quite right to say that the referee had no basis in law to rule an obstruction as the ball or ball carrier had not touched him. John Lacey should have penalised McKenzie for being way inside the five metre limit when the ball came out, but that’s another matter.
No, the try at the start of the third test typified a lot of the positives the All Blacks can take from the series. They had salvaged a scruffy lineout and Aaron Smith’s brilliant pass had got the ball to McKenzie. The first-five had a dab to stop the defence then passed to Sonny Bill Williams who made another dent.
Damian McKenzie invigorated Sonny Bill Williams with his threat taking the ball to the line.
Note to selectors, Mckenzie is still far from a finished 10 in many ways (you spell 10 Richie Mo’unga) but his passing ability and threat to the line invigorated Sonny Bill. The big man never looks comfortable outside Beauden Barrett. But give him a 10 who can take it to the line and pass with the accuracy of a rugby league playmaker, and SBW is a different player. After SBW’s incision, Sam Whitelock had a pick and go, and then Smith passed behind the double pod for Rieko Ioane to take the ball close to the line. Ardie Savea drew in more French defenders. A long pass from Smith then found Mckenzie tucked in behind Luke Whitelock, and Mckenzie passed behind a triple pod of forwards to SBW who passed on to Ben Smith to score.
The hole in the defence had been ruthlessly found and it is interesting to note the sheer variety of forward pods the All Blacks are playing with. Taylor is always the wide man outside the pod system, but the All Blacks are otherwise varying their numbers and targets. The French couldn’t get a handle on it.
So there was much to savour. It was an under-strength, tired, unfamiliar, under-talented French team. But the All Blacks won while finding a few new ways forward.
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