Underwhelming All Blacks offer hope to title rivals
On the face of it everything went to plan for New Zealand against Georgia at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night.
The All Blacks’ 43-10 victory propelled them into the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals with a pool game to spare and kept their hopes of unprecedented back-to-back titles very much alive.
They also came through the game physically – if not mentally – unscathed and fitness worries surrounding wing Waisake Naholo were allayed in the first minute with a blistering break for a try.
Concerns about the form of fellow speedster Julian Savea following a relatively dry spell also evaporated as he followed up his brace of tries against Namibia with a hat-trick that carried him to the top of the tournament scoring charts and took his international tally to 35 tries in 38 Tests.
But appearances can be deceiving.
This was supposed to be the game where the All Blacks reminded us why they were favourites for the World Cup coming into the tournament.
Captain Richie McCaw had even demanded his side ‘step up’ and produce a performance worthy of the occasion but rustiness ruined those plans.
Rarely has an All Blacks side been guilty of such an alarming level of errors with handling mistakes in particular blighting their performance.
A team that is renowned for its mastery of the basics drew increasingly audible gasps from a crowd that had expected the All Blacks to be good to their word and offer a reminder of their class.
A try-scoring bonus point may have been in the bag by half time but a gutsy Georgia remained in the contest until two converted scores in the final five minutes took the All Blacks out of sight and added some much-needed gloss to the scoreboard.
Hansen accepted that his side’s ‘skill execution’ was some way from perfect following the game while McCaw insisted that it was ‘an easy thing to fix’ but both must surely be seething at the disappointing level of execution and the team’s apparent struggle to produce its best form.
New Zealand opened their World Cup account with a 26-16 victory over Argentina in their high-profile clash at Wembley Stadium where the All Blacks’ lack of discipline – and a rare trip to the sin-bin for McCaw – dominated the headlines.
With the cobwebs dispatched, the All Blacks were widely expected to hit their straps in their second outing against Tier 2 rivals Namibia. But while Hansen’s side ran in nine tries on their way to a 58-14 victory they were repeatedly frustrated by a side including many part-time players.
If they wanted another wake-up call they certainly got one from a Georgia side who had already tasted victory against Tonga and given Argentina plenty to think about in their most recent clash.
Further plaudits will follow this latest showing especially as this was a much-changed Georgia side with coach Milton Haig perhaps eyeing victory over final opponents Namibia and a third place finish in the pool that will earn them automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Marshalled by the magnificent Mamuka Gorgodze, Georgia impressed with their work rate and the defensive pressure they exerted no doubt contributed to New Zealand’s woes.
Los Lelos are arguably the most upwardly mobile of the Tier 2 nations competing at this World Cup and their ability to go toe-to-toe with the world’s No.1 ranked side for over an hour will certainly strengthen their bid to join Europe’s elite.
But sadly not even victory over the All Blacks would pave the way for a promotion to the Six Nations – the northern hemisphere’s premier international competition.
While promotion and relegation features throughout the lower levels of international competition in Europe the door to the Six Nations remains firmly closed with the existing nations understandably reluctant to jeopardise their own place at what is a rather lucrative top table.
A governing body intent on developing the game and encouraging growth in emerging and new markets must ensure that change is forthcoming – as they did with Argentina’s entry into The Rugby Championship – and that teams like Georgia are able to reach their obvious potential.
This brave and clearly crowd-pleasing performance – with the stadium rising as one to salute a Gorgodze as he was announced as the Man of the Match – will not only fuel Georgia’s belief that they belong in such company but also that of New Zealand’s rivals for the sport’s biggest prize.
There are clearly cracks in the All Blacks’ armoury and this will not have been lost on those sides who may face them a little further down the line – and who will possess much more of an attacking threat than Namibia or Georgia.
But at the same time, just as fly-half Dan Carter brushed off some indifferent form with the boot early in this contest before finding his kicking boots, the All Blacks will surely return to top form sooner rather than later.
They possess too much class to not learn fast from their lessons and risk entering the quarter-finals with doubts still lingering.
Expect usual service to resume against Tonga.