In the wake of the Crusaders losing to the Reds, things from a NZ perspective smell a bit like 1990-1991 again. In 1987-1990 the All Blacks were brilliant. They won the World Cup, and swept all before them, until the Sydney test of 1990, where they were thrashed by the Wallabies. They then won the return test against the Wallabies 6-3 at Eden Park, but the truth was there, they were on the decline and the Wallabies were on the rise. This was followed by the Wallabies thrashing the All Blacks in the semi-final of the cup in Britain, inspired by the dynamic David Campese. The Wallabies then had a good pack, and some of the greatest backs to play the game including Farr-Jones, Lynagh, Horan, Little, and the mercurial Campese. These guys were game breakers. Our backs looked pedestrian in comparison. While our forwards may have had the edge, they tore us apart.
Are we seeing the same thing emerging. For a few years we have smashed the Wallabies, their forwards simply not up to it. Now however, as we saw last night in the final of the Super 15 and at Hong Kong last year, they are gaining some degree of parity. At least enough to allow their backs to do their thing. Then there are their backs. They have a brilliant half-back, Genia, far superior to anyone in NZ. Cooper is brilliant! Behind a badly losing pack he may be a problem, but with Genia feeding him and a pack that can now compete, he is lethal – a Benji Marshall type character. Then there are the brilliant Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor to go alongside other really good footballers like Matt Giteau, Rod Davies, Mark Gerrard, Digby Ione, and Lachie Turner among others. As a set of backs, that is something really special. While they might still not be able to match the All Black Tight Five, they have some great forwards particularly in the loosies; men like Rocky Elsom, Scott Higginbotham, James Horwill, David Pocock, Beau Robinson, Benn Robinson, Nathan Sharpe, Dan Vickerman and others. This is the basis of a forward pack that can get enough ball.
Considering the All Blacks we have a tired look about us, kind of like the 1991 side which was full of people at the ends of their great careers. McCaw looked slow last night, not at all a 7, more of a 6. Is Brad Thorn one year past it? Mealamu and Woodcock are now aging. Is Ali Williams really back to the level required to win a World Cup Final? Of the current crop of forwards, the Frank's brothers, Crockett, Sam Whitelock, and Read stand out. Read is a great! Kaino is solid. But, is that enough to demolish the Wallabies to the point that we can stifle their flair for eighty full minutes of a final? I now have serious doubts. While we have reasonable half backs, none of the current crop are brilliant and in that upper echelon of the likes of Loveridge, Farr-Jones, Genia, Kirk, Van Der Westhuizen. Commonly, a great half-back is a critical component of World Cup wins. Carter at the moment looks slow, and lacking in direction, and his kicking is not great, at the moment. While the mid-fielders Nonu and Smith are competent and perhaps better, they are well known and predictable. Sonny-Bill Williams has talent, but will it break open defences at the very highest level of a world cup final. He struggled last night to me. Can Sivivatu avoid injury and reach his peak? Is he past it? There are other wingers and fullbacks like Maitland, Jane, Guilford, Smith, Dagg and Toeava, but are they really able to tear open the Wallabies? Is Mils now past it? When I compare the two backlines we seem down on pace, flair, and shear brilliance. They are on the rise, we are on the wane.
Of course it is too late now to make wholesale changes and renew the team. There are many young hot shots coming through. But, unlike the Wallabies who have been rebuilding, we have tended to retain the nucleus of 2007.
I also noted last night how much the game felt like Cardiff 2007. When the heat came on, McCaw and Carter did not respond well as leaders. Where was the leadership to take control, and systematically drive to victory? As in Cardiff, it was more like panic.
Then there is the path to the Final. We will have to knock over the French (then a light week, Canada), then Argentina/England or Scotland, the Springboks and the Aussies in the final over three weeks! That is a huge schedule. No room for an aging team in this.
So all in all, I suggest that the Wallabies are now the favourites to win the cup. Our best asset is that we are at home and that evens it out a bit. But to me, all in all, the Wallabies are definitely the team to beat.
Two things give me hope despite this.
One is that, unlike 1991, we have a united coaching team. The Wylie-Hart thing was a shocker, whereas the Henry-Smith-Hansen combo is seasoned. On the other hand, they have Deans who I thought should have taken over the AB's after 2007.
Secondly, the last time we won the cup was when it was at home and the Wallabies were the favourite. Here's hoping. But for me, the Wallabies are the favourites.