Blacks within reach of rugby heaven

RYAN VREDE watched the All Blacks take a step closer to ending their World Cup misery with a 20-6 victory over Australia at Eden Park.

Surely now. Surely the suffering will end. Surely the team that has so often betrayed the faithfulness of their long-suffering fans, nay, disciples, will claim the one prize they most covet.

France lie in wait in the final. On the evidence of their woeful performance in victory over Wales last night they will not live with this flawed but formidable team and its superlative players – Israel Dagg chief among those.

On current form Dagg is without peer in the game, possessing every technical gift on offer, and, more pertinently, the temperament for the biggest occasions. All those qualities were on show as he crafted their only try, beating three would-be tacklers then defying the laws of physics to offload a pass to Ma’a Nonu while plummeting into touch. Breathtaking is a word too liberally used to describe mediocre feats. It is inadequate for that inspired action.

Dagg was the headline act in a play with a range of compelling sub-plots, none more so than the vendetta against a son of New Zealand’s soil, Quade Cooper. It took 32 minutes for the flyhalf to do something right (a drop-goal), the preceding period being spent chastising himself for errors or peeling himself off the canvas from statement hits.

While Cooper’s star waned, his counterpart Aaron Cruden’s shone brightly. In the context of his Test career – its genesis seeing coach Graham Henry hailing him as the natural successor to Daniel Carter, and its nadir coming when he was unceremoniously dumped shortly thereafter, before being recently recalled – his was a mature effort, particularly in light of the magnitude of the occasion and the quality of the opposition.

But in a game shaped by the principle of cause and effect, Cruden’s ability to rock rested heavily on the shift put in by his roadies in shirts one through eight. Immovable at the gainline on defence and irresistible on attack, the Blacks’ heavies were mighty. Their spirit was encapsulated in the superb performance of Richie McCaw, who excelled despite his foot being held together by hope and some items found in a mechanic’s toolbox. ‘I know he will try to be modest and give credit to the tight five [for laying the platform], but he was just outstanding,’ coach Graham Henry said of McCaw.

Australia boast a player of Dagg’s calibre in openside flank David Pocock, who appears to possess the supernatural gift of omnipresence. But he was rendered a non-factor at the breakdown thanks to the efficiency of the Blacks’ strike runners and cleaners.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the Wallabies’ unkillable spirit in the face of incessant pressure. It was the outstanding feature of their game against the Springboks last week, and they exhibited that again tonight. To restrict the Blacks to one try is a notable achievement given the hosts’ surfeit of territory and possession. However, they lacked a clinical edge in the 22m, which was decisive to their fortunes.

That they were in touch at half-time – trailing 14-6 – bore testament to their resolve as much as it did the Blacks’ frequent impatience on attack. But they did little more than survive, when reopening the psychological wounds the Blacks sport from previous failures in this tournament required considerably more.

Just after the restart Piri Weepu kicked his third penalty to go with a Cruden drop goal, extending the lead to 11 points. There was a observable change in focus from the Blacks thereafter, with panache giving way to pragmatism on attack and granitic defence being the bedrock of their resistance.

Australia succumbed, albeit not meekly, to a team who have no equal in the game. France are vastly inferior opponents. For the Blacks, ending their suffering will be more a test of exorcising their own demons than it will be about vanquishing Lievremont’s mad mob.

By Ryan Vrede, at Eden Park
Follow Ryan’s World Cup coverage on Twitter