By Patrick McKendry
The struggles of the Australian teams in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition may be good for them in the longer term because it will focus attention on how their players, from grassroots to professionals, are coached, former All Blacks first-five Andrew Mehrtens says.
The New Zealand teams are 10-0 after two rounds and while the first round was relatively close with Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists the Crusaders and Chiefs narrowly beating the Brumbies and Force respectively, the recent second round was far more one-sided.
There are three rounds remaining and already it seems unlikely an Australian side will make the final on 19 June, such is the apparent gulf in quality between the two nations, with the Crusaders’ 63-28 demolition of the Reds in Brisbane the most spectacular performance of the weekend.
It was the showdown of the two domestic Super champions but the Crusaders shook off their rusty start of a week earlier to outscore the Reds, nine converted tries to four.
Mehrtens, who played 70 tests for the All Blacks and has lived in Australia for the past eight years, said the five Aussie teams should know that there was “nothing impossible” about what the New Zealand teams do.
Rather, the Kiwi attack was something to aspire to.
However, an overhaul in the way Australian players were developed was required in order for their teams to reach the next level, he said.
“Knowing first-hand what they need to do in terms of a basic skill level is important, I think,” Mehrtens said
“For a long time over here the pathways developing players are very structured. That’s fed a lot into successive coaches who seem to be aligned with structure and organisation.
“They’re not learning a basic feel for the game and need for ball movement. So when they are put under pressure on the field they are reverting very much to structure and when they don’t know what that structure looks like they put boot to ball and kick it away.
“Whereas you see with the New Zealand teams, on every single turnover they’ll first look to move the ball away and attack. If they kick, it’s purposeful. They’re not always perfect, the New Zealand teams, but they try to kick to regain the ball, or put pressure on or find territory by kicking to grass.”
Noticeable over the recent weekend was not only how many New Zealand players delivered offloads in the tackle, which immediately unlocked the Australian defences, but also how few Aussie players could similarly get the ball away.
That too was a symptom of overly structed play, Mehrtens said.
The dexterity of the Kiwi forwards in terms of their ball handling and the way they stayed square on in attack in order to hold defences was also on a different level to the Aussies, he said.
“So many times when you see the Australian forwards do that it’s too pre planned that the pass is going out the back so they turn their shoulders and the defence can just run off them.
“It’s incumbent on the coaches here – they’re coaching adult-style drills with kids – really structured at trainings, versus playing a bit of touch rugby or derivative games like that when it’s just about moving the ball and accurate handling. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mehrtens, a former Crusaders first-five, watched the red and blacks’ recent win from the Suncorp Stadium sideline in his capacity as a television commentator and had nothing but praise for Mo’unga who scored a hat-trick of tries.
“He’s phenomenal isn’t he – a modern 10. From the little I know, he’s a really good team man as well. Just a brilliant talent. His feet… I guess that’s from his touch rugby days. And it’s the vision as well – the sensing the opportunity.
“For his third try the other night, it wasn’t like there was no one in front of him. He can sense the little chink in the line and can decide how best to exploit it in a split second.
“He’s exactly what you want in a 10 and when you have a player that devastating close in that you have to keep an eye on it frees up more space on the outside as well.”
*Patrick McKendry is an Auckland-based sports writer.
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