Two games, two easy wins. Three good halves of football, the second against Tonga not so good. What do we know?
We know first that the World Cup will first be decided by the All Blacks intensity, in the front five, but more importantly across the field at the breakdown—intensity. We have the backs (man do we have the backs out wide!), we need good go-forward ball all through the game, every game, for 80 minutes. If we do that, we will have a regular supply of quality ball.
Secondly, we know that to win the Cup, they can't lose Carter! Slade is struggling big time, looks out of his depth. Mind you, if we lose Carter, I suspect they will rush Cruden in, and he will start, or Weepu. I hope they have a message out to him to keep real fit, kick heaps, and spend 80 minutes a week running into people to keep sharp!
Thirdly, we have backs to slay anyone. Kahui has sown up one wing. Some are surprised, I am not. The only thing holding Kahui back has been injuries, he is a great athlete. Sonny Bill has to be on the bench, and will bring edge. The Smith-Nonu combination is awesome. Add to last night Dagg, sorry Mils, it is Dagg's time, Jane on the wing, Carter, lethal! Then there is Toeava and Muliaina to back up, excellent cover. On the outer is Guilford who, with Slade, is not measuring up at this level. They should have picked Cruden and Gear, but hindsight is a glorious thing. I am sure if they had picked the team after the final Tri-Nations game, they would have gone with Gear, maybe Cruden?
Fourthly, they need to pick the best half-back to get the ball crisply and sweetly to the backs a la Graeme Bachop. To me, Ellis is definitely the one who should start. With backs like that outside him, who needs a half who is going to muck around, having a look around, assessing options, being combative, taking a couple of steps as he passes etc. The only plus with Cowan is that he is tough and stronger defensively. But, he is not on his game at the moment, and Ellis was superb last night, as he has been in the Super 15 when not injured. Weepu then comes off the bench.
Fifthly, the forwards pick themselves. I would start with last night's forward pack, and add McCaw obviously, and Read when he is fit. Otherwise, that is the pack. They need to be super-intense in every game, and that will be the challenge for the older guys. I think Williams is not quite there, and Whitelock should start—it is his time, and we can't have too many old dudes in the front five.
Finally, there is the bench. I think they will have to stick with Slade, as Weepu adds so much at half when he comes on, and he can cover full-back and wing if needed. This means you can have Sonny-Bill. Otherwise we could be badly exposed if we lose two from the midfield and back three, Weepu and Cowan on the bench can hardly cover any of those positions. Also, Sonny-Bill is still not proven at wing. That was a great performance last night. Sure, the Japanese were weak, especially in the physical part of the game, but it was the intensity, the attitude, the excitement, the passion, the relentless pressure—that is what can win the cup.