The All Blacks’ image as surefire World Cup winners is starting to fade as not only critics but also the team’s fans begin to question coach Steve Hansen’s master plan.
Even Kieran Read, the stand-in captain for Friday’s 47-9 win over Tonga, admitted there were problems to be addressed.
Hansen put on a bold front after the game, declaring himself “very happy” with the way things are going.
“What’s happening now is irrelevant. What happens next week will be and it’s about maintaining performances from here on in and winning,” he said after Tonga finally folded at St James’ Park.
“We had a plan and we stuck to that plan now we have to wait to see if it works.”
In a relatively easy pool, the All Blacks maintained their record of never losing a game before the quarter-finals in all eight World Cups, and Hansen said they were building towards the sudden-death phase of the tournament.
But in all four pool matches in this tournament they have not once put in the full 80 minute performance that Hansen said is necessary in the play-offs.
For the last half hour against Tonga they looked thoroughly in command with precision finishing that netted five tries.
But, for the first 50 minutes they struggled.
Read dropped the ball the first three times he tried to catch it, Waisake Naholo dropped the ball with an open line ahead of him, and the scrum creaked and groaned and conceded four penalties against a feisty Tongan pack.
“What has happened to our game” tweeted Mark Stafford, reflecting the thoughts of many other All Blacks supporters.
Other tweets included: “The All Blacks are going to have to improve if they are to win this World Cup” and “Are the ABs holding everything back or are they really not that good in this comp”.
Read acknowledged that Tonga had exposed shortcomings in the All Blacks’ forwards.
“They really took us on up front. I was pleased the way we just stuck at it. They put some pressure on our scrum but we held our line there,” he said.
“Certainly our work up front needs to probably improve.”
Among the British press, the Independent believed the other quarter-finalists would be heartened by what they saw.
“For anyone else with designs on lifting the Webb Ellis Cup – and there are a few – this was a thoroughly comforting evening. “The gulf between this, and the energy and execution laid on by Australia against England at Twickenham last week was a class apart.
“And if Australia live up to last week’s highs again in their mouthwatering clash with Wales, they will surely have established themselves as the team to beat.”
The Guardian said the world champions were “still to shake off their ring rust” while The Times noted “something close to panic in their ranks during the middle period of the match when they were reduced to 14 men and Tonga surged forward with confidence, strength and skill.”
The Telegraph said the All Blacks’ title defence was “far from being straightforward. They looked wobbly and rusty, their only real point of difference being in their finishing, admittedly a rather significant factor.” – Agence France-Presse