herald

Friday 17 August 2018

New Zealand still benchmark and wily Henry the boss Kidney and co must match

Ireland and all the other Six Nations countries awoke this morning with a jolt of reality.

Just as they thought, the All Blacks remain the benchmark everyone else has to reach if they want to deny the host nation this Rugby World Cup.

Coach Graham Henry saw his men ease home in a 41-10, six-tries-to-one opening night victory and was asked how many he would give them out of 10.

"About six," he said dismissively. "It's early in the tournament and there was some tension. We have been waiting a long time for this and perhaps we weren't as free ... as normal.

"We scored some good tries and had some good structure. But we made too many mistakes and gave away too many penalties. So there is a bit of work to be done."

Few other coaches in world rugby would have denigrated such a clear win. The All Blacks had the game won by half time when they led 29-3. It's true the second half was a fragmented, stop-start affair. But no-one ever doubted the All Blacks' huge supremacy.

But then, that's the kind of withering standard demanded by Henry and his fellow coaches. They won't settle for second best and they're positively miserly when it comes to handing out plaudits.



Wise

Henry did praise full-back Israel Dagg and wing Richard Kahui, each of whom grabbed a brace of tries. But Henry is a wise old bird. He always phrases his answers as carefully as a politician, choosing his words only after much thought.

"Dagg will be pleased with the way he played," he said. You notice he didn't say that he himself was, although he did grudgingly admit the full-back had done "pretty well".

That's the kind of down-to-earth realism that Henry has instilled in this New Zealand squad. And it is a quality Declan Kidney and his fellow Six Nations coaches are going to have to adopt if they're to match the wily New Zealander.

The All Blacks were superb early on and scored five tries inside the first hour. It all went a bit pear-shaped after that, offering Henry the ammunition with which he will doubtless shoot down his men at the next training session.

He's a hard task master but that's the way the guy is, the way he operates.

And he has created a lean, mean New Zealand rugby machine in his own image.

Once the All Blacks' try glut had all but run its course, the fact was the game lost shape and interest. But the biggest surprise of all was the Tongans.

They'd been talking a good game all week, doing the 'sipi tau', their threatening war dance all over Auckland, and then producing a stirring show of it to the All Blacks before kick-off.

Whether it was the intensity of the New Zealanders 'haka' which answered the challenge, I don't know. But the Tongans were never anything but a poor shadow of their true selves.

With the islanders, you expect a frighteningly physical contest. Opponents are normally hammered, on and off the ball. Heads have to be re-attached to shoulders in normal circumstances.



Tame

But on the night, these Tongans were as tame as pussy cats. They never hit as though they meant it and some of their tackling, normally fearsome, was powder puff stuff. They hung off the rucks and let the All Blacks infiltrate offside. That wasn't the true Tonga.

Coach Isotiolo Maka said lamely: "Some of the players were a bit overwhelmed by the occasion. I hope they will front up when they play Canada on Wednesday. We tried to hold possession but the All Blacks were just more committed to the game than we were."

That was a shocking confession for a proud Pacific islander. You had to say, these Tongan players let down their many fans dotted around Eden Park, who had forked out big money to be there and support their team.

Maka's hope was that this match would help Tonga get more Tier One matches next year. But, on this evidence, they're not worth those games.

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