SCOOP RUGBY REVIEW - ABs' progress; Lions impress
FACING up to a frenzied French pack in the high-pressure atmosphere of a heaving WestpacTrust Stadium Saturday night the All Black pack stood staunch providing the platform and possession for New Zealand's world-class backs to cut loose on route to a 37-12 victory over a tough tricolour unit.
The hard work and rugged play of the black pack bodes well for the Tri-Nations where New Zealand will be forced to step-up in a huge way against the Springboks and a Wallaby team that will be primed by a series against a Lions squad, that proved with their first test victory, that they are more than a match for the reigning the world champions.
Back to Wellington and a sterling All Black effort. From Anton Oliver's role as skipper and rake to Leon 'Rangi' MacDonald's no fear attitude as custodian the 100 percent effort of every All Black to enter the fray would have maintained the faith of coaches Wayne Smith and Tony Gilbert who both will realise how hard this year's Tri-Nations will be.
To match up against the Springbok and Wallaby the All Blacks 2001 will require total committment to complement the superlative skills and pure power inherent in the current form of Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga and Troy Flavell.
Talents like Lomu, Umaga and Flavell are potential match-winners but will only be unleashed if the hard yards are earned by aggressive front-foot tight forward play.
And after two torrid encounters against all the power, passion and dirt of the Latin world's rugby heavyweights the comparatively young and inexperienced All Black tight forwards can stand staunch knowing they refused to take a single step back and throughout 160 minutes of tough rugby maintained an all round edge over two world class packs.
Leading the way up front rangy Northlander Norm Maxwell continues to play way above his body weight and as he improves with each appearance his intensity, inspirational defence and aerial abilities will continue to have an influential impact on the the All Black performance.
Adding their weight to Maxwell's attitude Carl Hoeft and skipper Oliver are crucial components of the All Black eight with both their experience and familiarity obvious strenghs. And after two encounters against the worlds best scrummagers the two Highlanders will be happy with progress while readily admitting their is a lot of work to be done.
In another crucial position - openside flanker - both incumbent Taine Randell and challenger Marty Holah continued to improve. Randells vision, power in the tackle and all round skill and experience probably have him maintaining the edge against Holah who is pressuring the former captain with his impressive work-rate and ability to create turnovers.
However perhaps the biggest selection headache affecting the selectors sleep patterns is who will be the starting halves against the Boks.
Justin Marshall the incumbent is a match-winner with the power of a loosie and the experience of New Zealand's most capped halfback. He is world-class and very difficult to leave out as his teamates obviously relish his presence in the critical number nine shirt.
Yet his challenger the terrier like Byron Kelleher is placing immense pressure on the selectors by stepping up like a champion with every chance he gets. While the Puma's were certainly cooked and the French perhaps tiring when Kelleher ran on for his two cameos his addition certainly upped the tempo and co-incided with a surge in scoring.
His whip like passes were delivered to Tony Brown with more pace and distance allowing the pivot ample space to set his backs away and on Saturday night tries to Lomu and Doug Howlett were both traced back to the excellent distribution of Kelleher.
The Otago half-back also offers aggresive often inspirational defence, is at the least the equal of Marshall as an attacking threat and only lags his illustrious teamate in his all-round kicking game.
Whoever is selected will do the halfback's job superbly and both are thriving under the pressure but perhaps it is time to give Jonah, Tana, Jeff and Doug more space and time to work their magic and the man to orchestrate that is certainly Kelleher.