A curmudgeon's Rugby World Cup diary: Week five

11:13 am on 13 August 2019

Let's start this week's column with a couple of Rugby World Cup trivia questions.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 10: Richie Mo'unga of the All Blacks looks dejected after the teams defeat during the 2019 Bledisloe Cup test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Qantas Wallabies at Optus Stadium, August 10 2019 in Perth,

All Blacks first five Richie Mo'unga following the side's loss to Australia at the weekend. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

For 10 points, can you nominate the moment in which New Zealand's 1999 campaign went down the gurgler?

The answer, of course, was when some genius decided fullback Christian Cullen ought to play at centre.

Let's go to 2003 now and, for 15 points, can you name the All Blacks fullback who suddenly turned up at centre in that tournament too?

Answer: Leon MacDonald.

Fast forward to 2019 and we're almost spoiled for choice. Beauden Barrett is not a fullback and nor is Ben Smith a wing. Ardie Savea isn't a blindside flanker and yet they were all asked to play in those spots against Australia on Saturday.

We all get that All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen wants his best players on the paddock. The stakes don't get any higher than a Rugby World Cup and there can be a temptation to tinker.

You only get one chance and you want to get it right, but inventing new positions for people smacks of getting too cute.

The best teams are rock-solid, bulletproof. The combinations are so well established and so effective that it would be madness to move people around.

But you look at this All Blacks team right now and almost every position looks up for grabs. Guys who've never worked in concert with one another are trying to build partnerships and it honestly looks doomed to fail.

Injuries happen, but the All Blacks' planning looks haphazard. The depth that has always been the envy of other nations now seems non-existent in certain areas and it really does feel as if a great era is coming to an undignified end.

Let's backtrack quickly

Saturday's 47-26 loss to Australia was embarrassing.

Australian rugby is in disarray. Or at least we thought so until events unfolded in Perth.

Australia’s Kurtley Beale (R) celebrates with Lukhan Salakaia (C) and Matt Toomua (L) after beating the All Blacks in Perth

Australia's Kurtley Beale (R) celebrates with Lukhan Salakaia (C) and Matt Toomua (L) after beating the All Blacks in Perth. Photo: AFP

Their Super Rugby teams are rabbles, Rugby Australia's handling of the Israel Folau situation was laughable and then you had combustible Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika and his mediocre players.

They went to Johannesburg and got thrashed by South Africa, then came home and beat Argentina 16-10 in hugely unconvincing fashion.

These are not the Rod McQueen-coached Wallabies of 1999. There are few, if any, world class players and the team has no body of fine work behind them.

And yet they blew the All Blacks off Optus Stadium

Our lot

Old, lethargic and out of ideas.

Sorry, that's not fair. They do have a gameplan and that's 'let's give it to Beauden'.

And in continuing to shovel the ball at the makeshift fullback, they put him in some very vulnerable positions.

All Blacks first-five/fullback Beauden Barrett tries to evade a tackle by Australian winger Marika Koroibete.

All Blacks first five/fullback Beauden Barrett tries to evade a tackle by Australian winger Marika Koroibete. Photo: Photosport

With nothing on, and a solid defensive line in front of him, Barrett has to invent. Some punts will come off, but most won't in that situation. It makes him look bad and saps his confidence, but it seems to be the team's only attacking option.

There's no grunt, no go-forward. Australia neither kicked, nor dropped the ball, on Saturday, leaving New Zealand no opportunity to counter from broken play.

They just threw it to Barrett and hoped for the best.

The red card

Scott Barrett made no attempt to tackle Michael Hooper. The elbow was tucked in, he braced himself and he shoulder-charged the Australia captain.

The fact contact was made with the head and neck meant referee Jerome Garces had no option but to show Barrett a red.

If that's World Rugby's standard and guys who commit that kind of act are going to be sent off, then none of us can complain. But if guys don't walk, as was the case with England's Owen Farrell on two occasions last year, then there will be justified dissatisfaction.

'Moving forward'

Ben Smith either plays fullback or not at all. Either way, Sevu Reece probably needs to come onto the right wing.

Beauden Barrett either plays first five-eighth or not at all. Richie Mo'unga is undermined at 10 with Barrett on the park, so we have no real idea how he's going. For mine, Barrett is the best first-five and should start there all the time.

Midfield is a worry this week. The injured Jack Goodhue is the only genuine centre in the squad. Braydon Ennor can play there, but is too green, while Anton Lienert-Brown is better at 12.

Scott Barrett of the All Blacks is sent off by referee, Jerome Garces

Scott Barrett sees red in the All Blacks to Australia. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

You assume Lienert-Brown will partner Sonny Bill Williams on Saturday and, while both can offload, neither is a genuine playmaker.

Kieran Read either plays No.8 or Ardie Savea does. Savea is not a No.6 and this business of them mixing and matching is as unsatisfactory as the Mo'unga and Barrett thing.

Patrick Tuipulotu's now got a big job at lock and you wonder if someone such as Tom Franklin needs to be drafted in as cover, while hooker Dane Coles needs to encourage the other frontrowers to play with his kind of vigour.

World cup champions?

Meanwhile, South Africa went to Salta and thrashed Argentina 46-13.

Referee Romain Poite did the Pumas few favours, but the Springboks were still very worthy winners and really do loom as the team to beat at the world cup.

You get the impression they'll only get better as the year goes on, as opposed to this All Blacks' side whose best days might be behind it.

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