Daniel Carter's fitness will be the national sporting topic for the next few weeks in New Zealand. The fly-half's health has been a year-long concern for the All Blacks since he ruptured his Achilles tendon while playing in France. His recovery has gone well and he has been able to play some club and provincial rugby in the past few weeks. That progress cannot happen fast enough for the All Blacks after they were rocked 31-19 in Durban by the Springboks for their third defeat in just six Tests this season.
It is the worst annual record for coach Graham Henry since he began his 69-Test career with the All Blacks in 2004 and the side still have eight more Tests left this season. The All Blacks now have 20 days before they play again, in Sydney against Australia and their Kiwi-turned Wallaby coach Robbie Deans. The wait for the players and coaching staff will seem interminable while the nation will debate and dissect the merits of the players, the style and the coaching methods.
For Henry, this stretch will compare with the heat he suffered five years ago when his side lost successive Tests. He has felt tough times since, like the backlash from the failed World Cup campaign in 2007. But things are not looking good for Henry, who has been reappointed to take the side through to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Defeats have become more acceptable in New Zealand but not when they are as decisive as the loss in Durban.
Their error rate was abysmal. The defeat rivalled the 40-26 loss to the Boks at Ellis Park in 2004 and was as disjointed as the 21-10 defeat to the same foes at Rustenburg in 2006. After the 2004 meltdown, the selectors culled senior players like Justin Marshall, Andrew Mehrtens, Carlos Spencer and Kees Meeuws and overhauled the team's style and patterns. A repeat rebuild is necessary but the cull is trickier this time as there are not a lot of alternate choices.
Some like Joe Rokocoko, Brendon Leonard, Rodney So'oialo, Jason Eaton and Neemia Tialata need to play their way into form in the national championship while the lack of influence from others like Mils Muliaina, Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore should be a concern for the selectors. But there will also be great scrutiny on the coaches and their instructions for the All Blacks to play so much football in their own half, to persist with a messy array of kicks, and the side's lack of belief in the line-outs.
Error counts will vary but the All Blacks lost possession more than 30 times. Add on the 13 penalties the All Blacks conceded and it was probably a miracle they were not beaten by more. Henry's side tried to play high tempo, expressive but hazardous rugby which foundered on their hideous mistake rate and the Bok defence. "The guys were trying to play the right style of football against this particular team," an unrepentant Henry said.
"It's just that it's high risk, some of it. It's difficult when you're living off crumbs. When you're chasing your tail and you haven't got a lot of ball to play with, you push it. If we'd nailed a couple of the opportunities, it may have turned the game around a wee bit for us." Some of the offences were staggering; Rokocoko trying to run the ball out from behind his line instead of forcing it, Hore choosing to throw long on his own line with line-out ace Isaac Ross in the sin bin, Jerome Kaino penalised twice in rapid succession for not binding on the scrum.
But all that will be forgotten if Carter convinces the selectors he is ready for the next battle. @Email:email@example.com