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As ‘Two-eyed Cyclops’ sees stuff of legend, it’s very much all black

How’s your knowledge of Greek mythology? OK, not to worry. It’s just that a certain “Two-Eyed Cyclops” and I seem to see pretty much eye-to-eye on a recent sporting epic that’s been hailed as the stuff of legend.

So much so that instead of trotting out a few thoughts of my own for this blog, as planned, I’ve decided to run with those of a subscriber to a popular Australian sports opinion website, The Roar (www.theroar.com.au).

No, sadly for you rugby league fans, I’m not referring to last Sunday’s NRL title showdown in Sydney – though I heartily acknowledge it was an absolute cracker – but to that remarkable Rugby Championship decider, between the All Blacks and the Springboks, in Johannesburg.

(And no, I haven’t forgotten there was another Rugby Championship match played last weekend – yes, maybe, just maybe, the embattled Wallabies have turned the corner — but, frankly, that Rosario wooden spoon decider was rendered a mere blip on the rugby radar by the blockbuster that unfolded at Ellis Park.)

With apologies to non-rugby types – and permission from the Gold Coast-based Roarer with that fascinating pseudonym – here’s the piece (an epic in its on right), under the heading “Can anybody catch the All Blacks?”, that took my fancy.

“Another Rugby Championship done and dusted, another whitewash by the All Blacks, who went on their merry way and left everybody gasping in their wake,” he wrote.

“Every team has their moment in the sun, but has any other team dominated their sport over such a long period? To such an extent that even when they are merely good, their fans class it as a failure, and their opponents as the beginning of the ‘inevitable’ decline, that never materialises?

“What makes them consistently so good? How do they maintain their incredible standards of excellence and how do they consistently stay ahead of the opposition?

“After last weekend’s showpiece at Ellis Park, I joined the multitude of genuine fans (ignoring the jingoistic idiots and unpleasant one-eyed supporters) in lauding the All Blacks and congratulating the Springboks for “turning up” and making the game such an advertisement for our sport.

“When the emotion died out in the cold light of day, and after closely re-watching the game with good friends, the enormity of the All Blacks’ achievement really struck me.

“Every single factor in that game was stacked against them.

“Specifically:
• The long trip to Argentina and a hard and physical game against a fired-up Pumas.

• The long and arduous trip to Johannesburg to play the Springboks at altitude.

• The intimidating and incredibly hostile cauldron that is Ellis Park, where their record is not that good.

• A number of their key players missing, most notably Dan Carter and Owen Franks, with their skipper (Richie McCaw) returning from a month-long injury layoff.

• Playing the game for 20 minutes with 14 players.

• A very good, fired-up and well-coached foe, champing at the bit for redemption and looking to right the wrongs of Eden Park.

“Yet amazingly, they won at a canter.

“Make no mistake – on re-examining the game, I was left in no doubt that whether by one or by 40 points, they would have won.

“At no point, even when they were behind, did I detect a hint of panic, head dropping, or drop in performance and belief. They were in control.

“And out of the two teams, with everything mentioned above, I felt the All Blacks were racing away at the end like a true thoroughbred, not getting caught by the Springboks.

“Good as the Springboks were, they never had the All Blacks’ measure.

“The Boks surprised them initially by going wide early and scoring two quick tries, but being the smart team they are the All Blacks soon adjusted on the hoof and took control.

“They smartly neutralised what the Springboks considered their main weapons – the rolling maul, lineout and scrum. They seem to react and fix any issues during or after a game with ruthless efficiency and speed.

“I also read a lot of comments about the ‘soft’ tries the Springboks conceded and all the ifs and buts accompanying the chest beating.

“Substitute Springbok for Wallaby and the posts are identical to the first Rugby Championship match in Sydney this year. And I am sure if I could read Spanish posts there would be a few about the Ben Smith bonus point try against the Pumas recently.

“So I don’t buy the soft try theory.

“The All Blacks have the ability to create uncertainty, hesitation, a rush to the head by the most experienced of players (Jean de Villiers rushing off his line for the Barrett try), and when that happens the sublime skill to nail it. It happens too often.

“Among the countless memories I carry away from this Test, the one I will forever treasure is the sight of Beauden Barrett, with the game already won and from an impossible and hopeless starting position, hunting down Willie le Roux to miraculously save a certain try.

“That is what champions are made off, and a glance at the future.

“Now back to my question – can anybody catch them?

“Normally I would say yes, and at present some say that this Springbok side are snapping at their heels, but I don’t think they are as close as most people think.

“Let’s ignore the obvious and well-documented structures that enable the All Blacks to capture, nurture, develop and control their talent pool and effortlessly regenerate their playing stock.

“The problem is that the chasing pack never quite know what they are chasing.

“And when they eventually do catch up, the All Blacks – being the smart, trendsetting team they are – have already moved the goal posts. They are continually evolving, never standing still – sometimes obviously so, sometimes not.

“For example, until a couple of years ago the All Blacks were running the ball from everywhere to devastating effect. Broken play was their friend and their ability to provide quick ball from there to their deadly finishers was something to behold. That was also the time they perfected the ‘offload in the tackle’ technique, with a certain SBW turning it into an art form.

“At the same time, most of their opponents were derided for their ‘boring’ power/kicking game, and their inability to live with the blistering pace the All Blacks brought to their game. Trying to subdue them by kicking and muscle power was unfashionable and backward looking.

“Now let’s jump to the present. Is there a team out there that kicks more than the All Blacks?

“There might be but surely it wouldn’t be that obvious.

“Is anybody criticising them for it? Absolutely not. Why?

“As teams started catching on and reducing the instances of broken play they thrive on, the All Blacks decided to manufacture their own broken play. And what better way to do it than by putting everybody out of position by kicking behind them?

“That in itself is not sufficient or revolutionary – all the opponents would have to do is either run it or kick it back, unless touch was found. It has only become a potent weapon because they have selected and up-skilled the right personnel to such an extent that it is a surprise when they don’t regather the ball and instantly have the broken play they crave.

“Watching Savea, Ben Smith and Dagg contesting those very contestable kicks has become a thing of beauty and adds rather that detract from the spectacle. Their excellence in regathering starts, a by-product of their aerial skills, is an added bonus.

“This is a simple but valid example of their evolution – there are others, and none of this is at the expense of executing the basics to perfection. Their smartness in playing what is in front of them, their composure under pressure, their stunning defence, their lack of obvious weakness, the way their domestic, Super Rugby and international teams work in sync, the seamless way they introduce newcomers to their set-up, their outstanding fitness and athleticism, the pressure they apply to their opponents, their consistency, the way they capitalise on almost every opportunity on offer… need I go on?

“You can also forget the current popular opinion that they are an ageing team coming to the end of their reign. Firstly, they are not an ageing team, and in the positions where they are ageing, the incumbents are there because they are the best in those positions – some arguably in the world – not because they cannot replace them.

“I remember similar statements in the past about legendary players such as Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and Richie McCaw, Grant Fox, Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter, Buck Shelford and Zinzan Brooke, Joe Stanley, Frank Bunce and Conrad Smith. Somebody always steps up.

“The way to match them and beat them at their own game is to set up the proper structures. Get all levels of rugby in your organisation to buy into a style and vision across the board, develop thinking leaders on the field, employ top and proven coaches and develop a game plan that suits your psyche and your playing stock.

“Then, perfect it. Then improve it further and keep evolving. Never stand still. Be different, take them out of their comfort zone, put them under pressure and create uncertainty. Easier said than done.

“But I am sure the way to beat them is not by trying to emulate them.

“When you do, they would have moved to another level.”

— Peter Thomson

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One Response to As ‘Two-eyed Cyclops’ sees stuff of legend, it’s very much all black

  • phil campbell says:

    Most concise, apt summary of the present All Blacks. And apt is where were at. As someone (Denzil Batchelor?) wrote of George Nepia of the 1924 Invincibles, it is a question of who is fit enough can lace up their cotton Oxford daisy roots. Reads much like Spiro Zavos. PC.

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