FORMER All Black Doug Howlett has been hugely impressed by the start Graham Henry’s side made on the Tri Nations Championship, and he believes the title is theirs for the taking.
After hammering the holders South Africa twice in succession, Howlett sees no reason why they can’t take the giant leap forward and regain the top Southern Hemisphere rugby prize.
In advance of tomorrow’s battle between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane, Howlett wouldn’t be surprised to see the World Champions all but knocked out of contention by the Wallabies.
So far, he hasn’t been shocked that New Zealand won both games against the Springboks although he was taken aback by the manner of the victories, particularly the opener. “I must admit to having had to take a step back watching that game to say ‘wow’.
“I figure they can kick on from here but I hope it’s not too early and that they can build on that further to prepare for next year (World Cup).”
Howlett has been particularly impressed by the staggeringly good form of a succession of New Zealand backs, amongst them full back Mils Muliaina.
“He’s a class player and I suppose earning 80 odd caps for a team like the All Blacks tells its own story; I’d like to see his error rate because in my view he doesn’t make many at all.”
But if New Zealand — with two bonus point wins — are now hot favourites to land the title, Howlett warns about crashing to Australia in one or more of their three games later in the tournament.
New Zealand have to travel across the Tasman twice, starting with a clash in Melbourne tomorrow week. Then, after entertaining the Wallabies in Christchurch, the All Blacks finish off their campaign with two precarious away fixtures, playing South Africa in Johannesburg and Australia again in Sydney.
By then the Wallabies could be out of the loop given that they have to play in South Africa twice, but Howlett says New Zealanders never feel at ease playing against the Wallabies.
“We never would have taken anything for granted against Australia, our old arch-enemy; it could be a real dog fight against our neighbours, but the All Blacks have shown they will be hard to stop,” he said.
Meanwhile, Munster and Irish back row forward Denis Leamy has predicted that Australia’s Rocky Elsom could have a huge influence on whether the All Blacks continue their early dominance of this year’s Tri Nations.
“Obviously Australia will be looking for a big start (against South Africa) to the competition this weekend, and Elsom will be a key figure for sure. If they get that boost it’s possible they will give New Zealand a run for their money in the tournament.
“Elsom was awesome during his year in Ireland with Leinster; he played way above expectation I’m sure and he was hugely influential on the team. Maybe he has struggled to match that since his return but he will surely be a significant player for the Wallabies going forward.
“His ability to break the line and his pace are exceptional ingredients of his game; he’s a very big man, very powerful and very hard to stop when he gets into his stride.”
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