I’m delighted with the shape the All Blacks are in as the knockout stage begins. The big game to date was against France and we were right on the money, regardless of the team the French put out.
You always need to be physical against France at the breakdown and that’s what we were. Looking at the pack, the starting eight against France is pretty much the scrum I’d like to see for the rest of the tournament – apart from Kieran Read to come back into the mix at No 8.
The Brad Thorn/Sam Whitelock partnership in the second row works well, with Ali Williams on the bench, though against a really tall pack you might need Williams’s height. But I like Thorn because he’s always very physical. I’m also happy with the way Owen Franks is going at tighthead and Tony Woodcock at loosehead. Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore complement each other well as hookers and both are in good form.
There was talk before the NZ-France game about how the result could affect the progress of the teams. For me it wasn’t a factor – there’s no such thing as an ‘easier’ half of the draw. Ireland beat Australia, which was a real wake-up call to the southern hemisphere. What that win showed was how crucial the breakdown is today. Without David Pocock Australia struggled; New Zealand would be in a similar position if they lost Richie McCaw or Wales if they lost Sam Warburton.
Some mates who went told me the Australia v Ireland game was the best atmosphere they’ve ever experienced. New Zealanders said before the World Cup that the country was a stadium of four million people and they’ve proved it. It’s exceeded people’s expectations and I’ve certainly been blown away by the job we’ve done in hosting the tournament.
The one criticism I have is of the scheduling that did the smaller nations no favours. Look at poor Namibia, who had to play Wales four days after taking on the Springboks. Similarly, Samoa have had some short turnarounds while the big boys have had longer rest periods. If we want these teams to be competitive, they’ve got to have a level playing field. Who can blame Japan for fielding a second XV against the All Blacks when they were faced with three games in 11 days, another of which was against France?
Talking of Japan, their fly-half James Arlidge was a standout performer in the pool stage. He’d be good enough to step into a Tier One side, so too Samoa No 8 George Stowers. I’ve also been impressed by Israel Dagg for the All Blacks, while the Welsh pair of Warburton and Rhys Priestland will be stars for a long time.
As for the best hooker, he’s spent most of the time on the bench. I’m talking about South Africa’s Bismarck du Plessis, who can’t get into the team because of captain John Smit. I wonder if the Boks may come to regret that.
This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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