Running illusion

JON CARDINELLI writes the All Blacks showed why a strong kicking game is still needed to win the Tri-Nations.

The Springboks won the 2009 tournament by using a tactical game that forced opposition errors. While the All Blacks have employed a more complete approach in 2010, a strong kicking game has undoubtedly contributed to their recapturing of the Sanzar crown.

Some have labelled the All Blacks an expansive unit and believe their ability to adapt to the new law interpretations has allowed them to dominate. This is partially true when you consider they’ve averaged 14 linebreaks and four tries a game in the 2010 Tri-Nations, but their success is largely based on superior decision making and a preference to play deep in opposition territory.

It could be argued that great ball retention has allowed them to vary their play, but even when the Wallabies have dominated in the Bledisloe Cup possession stakes, clever kicking has got them out of jail. The Wallabies’ style is utilised by the Reds in the Super 14, and while keeping possession and running from all corners may produce an attractive brand, the stats confirm that this style has its limitations against a good defensive team like the All Blacks.

Dan Carter has averaged nine kicks a game while the Boks’ Morne Steyn is a close second with seven. Be it Quade Cooper or Matt Giteau at flyhalf, the Wallabies have run more than kicked. Between Giteau and Cooper, they’ve averaged just two kicks a game.

The Wallabies enjoyed success against the Boks in Brisbane, making 17 linebreaks and romping to a comfortable win. Their halfbacks made just four tactical kicks between them. Up against a very shaky Bok defensive line, there was no need to kick possession away.

The Boks have improved their defence since Brisbane but remain vulnerable in those crucial periods before half-time and the final whistle. It will be interesting to see whether the Wallabies back themselves to penetrate the Boks again, or make use of the altitude as the All Blacks did in the second half at Soccer City.

Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn employed the kick-chase strategy, with the former producing a particularly accurate showing. This kicking duo will be further boosted by the return of Frans Steyn. According to Racing Metro coach Pierre Berbezier, Steyn is unfit, but if this week’s training sessions are anything to go by, he’s lost none of his formidable kicking power.

I’m not advocating a kick, kick and kick some more approach, but rather stressing the need for good tactical decision making. As the All Blacks have showed, winning begins with securing possession and playing from the right areas of the field. They have varied their play even though they’re falsely touted as a predominately expansive team.

The Boks lacked intensity Down Under and were badly beaten at the collisions. At Soccer City, some poor defence in the dying stages of either half cost them rather than a conservative kick-chase approach. While the loose forwards were better, the Boks still missed a genuine fetcher capable of winning the ruck ball back after those high-hanging bombs.

Peter de Villiers has omitted Francois Louw from his squad for Saturday, and the bench selection of Ryan Kankowski suggests the Boks will use the same approach that proved so flawed in Brisbane. They need to keep the Aussies pinned in their own half through good tactical kicks, and then build their attack from there. Running from all corners may make for a spectacle, but won’t win them the Test.

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