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01 Dec 2009 10:14
New Zealand arrived in Europe having been stripped of their Tri-Nations crown by world champions South Africa.
But the All Blacks can return home safe after their November internationals in the knowledge that their credentials as the form side in world rugby have been restated after clean sweeping all the northern hemisphere rivals they played.
The SANZAR nations also including South Africa and Australia lost just three of their 11 matches in Europe, two of those by the disappointing Springboks who were a shadow of the side that strolled to Tri-Nations victory and a series win over the British and Irish Lions in the summer.
Tellingly, Six Nations sides scored just four tries between them in those 11 matches while their opponents notched up 23. The toothless England and Wales attack failed to score even a single try against New Zealand or Australia.
Graham Henry’s men in black rarely hit second gear in seeing off Wales (19-12), Italy (20-6) and England (19-6), but then came out blazing when putting France to the sword in a 39-12 rout in Marseille on Saturday.
That latter result was even more convincing given that France had outmuscled the Springboks 20-13 in their opening November Test.
There has been much criticism of the way modern rugby union is evolving into a boring spectacle with a preponderance on kicking down the tramlines in a bid to force a mistake rather than keeping ball in hand to attack, a tactic that often sees the attacking side fall foul of the referee at contact.
The All Blacks are not blameless in this and one must remember that it is their cast-iron defence and ability to clear their lines that are the bedrock for their success.
Amazingly, they conceded not one try in their four matches, mirroring the feat achieved by their 2008 contemporaries.
But against France, even the most cynical observer realised that the way the All Blacks played was the way rugby should be.
Spurning tramline kicking with an on-field formation resembling a football-like 4-4-2, the Kiwis ran almost everything, refreshingly spinning the ball wide from deep in a bid to release their dangerous runners.
France tried to copy them and fell short, but showed no little talent and must be hailed for their attempt to buck the kicking trend that drives even the most battle-hardened supporter to the limits.
So while life is apparently rosy for New Zealand, hosts of the next World Cup in 2011, it was not all happy sailing in the Springbok camp.
After losing to the French without looking in the least bit dangerous, they posted a facile 32-10 win over Italy before losing 15-10 to reigning Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland.
Their midweek side also crashed to two humiliating defeats to English club sides Leicester (22-17) and Saracens (24-23).
One can only hope, however, that such results will not deter future touring sides from bringing midweek “dirt-trackers” given that the games attracted huge gates and equally big numbers of television viewers.
Australia, whose midweek team defeated Cardiff Blues 31-3, finished off their tour with a flourish, beating Wales 33-12.
Their bid for a Grand Slam over the four “home” unions started well with a 18-9 victory over England, but went to pot with a 20-20 draw with Ireland before going down the pan with a shock 9-8 defeat to Scotland—the first in 27 years and 17 encounters.
Ireland, whose coach Declan Kidney was named IRB coach of the year, came out of the autumn series having saved face for the northern hemisphere with the draw against Australia—which included two of the northern hemisphere sides tries—the win over the Springboks and a facile defeat of Fiji (41-6).
England’s campaign, however, made for painful viewing with coach Martin Johnson coming under enormous pressure over his under-performing team.
After the loss to the Wallabies, the English went on to beat Argentina 16-9 in what many described as the worst game ever seen at Twickenham before losing 19-6 to the All Blacks.
An under-strength Argentina were a mixed bag, salvaging their autumn with a desperate 9-6 win over the Scots following their losses to England and Wales (33-16).
Wales coach Warren Gatland laid into his Welsh charges after their defeat to the Australians on the final weekend of action that rounded off a month that started with defeat to New Zealand.
And it seems much work lies ahead to turn the team into Six Nations contenders given their sterile wins over the Pumas and Samoa (17-13), the latter of which were also outplayed by France (43-5) and Italy (24-6), thus breaking a 13-match losing streak for the Azzurri.—AFP
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