All Blacks 'machine' has shifted up a gear, says Mortlock
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A pair of humbling losses to the All Blacks marked a tough initiation for new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, but that was to be expected against a world champion team showing no sign of stopping, former Australia captain Stirling Mortlock has said.
Mortlock, who battled a succession of top-ranked New Zealand teams in an 80-cap career from 2000-09, said Steve Hansen's side had defied belief by raising their game to another level since winning the 2011 World Cup under former coach Graham Henry.
"The reality is the New Zealand team right now are essentially a machine," Mortlock told Reuters on Tuesday.
"They're full of confidence, they know exactly what they're doing both on an individual and collective level and they're accuracy and execution when opportunities arise is fantastic.
"It seems as though, since winning the World Cup in 2011, this All Blacks outfit has just gone up another gear, which you'd almost argue you didn't think that they were capable of doing. But that seems to be the case."
The appointment of McKenzie, who replaced Robbie Deans after the New Zealander led Australia to a morale-sapping series loss against the British and Irish Lions, raised hopes Down Under of an end to the All Blacks' dominance.
But the former test prop's honeymoon ended with a 47-29 shellacking in Sydney, backed up by another emphatic 27-16 loss in Wellington at the weekend which kept the Bledisloe Cup, the annual trophy contested between the trans-Tasman rivals, in New Zealand's possession for an 11th straight year.
McKenzie will mull changes for the Wallabies' third match of the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship against 2007 world champions South Africa in Brisbane, and singled out his reserves for failing to make an impact off the bench in Wellington.
But Mortlock believes the former World Cup-winning forward should not lose faith in his current squad ahead of the Lang Park clash on September 7.
"I guess (the All Blacks) are a fairly tough yardstick to measure the Wallabies against," said the 36-year-old, a bustling inside centre during his Wallabies career.
"There's a lot of positive things the Wallabies have been doing over the last two test matches but to do that consistently and to be able to finish your opportunities off when you have a sniff, that takes a bit of time to get that right.
"There's probably a few changes that they'd be looking into but the reality is the bulk of that squad has a lot of fresh faces who deserve that opportunity and I really hope that they'll continue to work in that environment and continue to improve."
While Mortlock believes the gulf between world number one New Zealand and fourth-ranked Australia is not that wide, one area the All Blacks enjoy a clear advantage is adjusting quickly to referees' interpretations, he said.
Australian media slammed South African referee Jaco Peyper for failing to crack down hard on the All Blacks during the Wellington match as the hosts infringed repeatedly during penalty advantage situations deep in defence, conceding three points from goal kicks, rather than a try.
McKenzie said the International Rugby Board (IRB) should take a look at the tactic, but Mortlock said there were enough rules in place to deal with it already.
"I think that all teams have plans, systems in place to minimise the opportunities that the opposition will get," he said.
"The question is how they implement those plans in responding to the way... the referee is adjudicating on the field on that day.
"And I think New Zealand have been a step ahead of the rest in that regard. Their ability to understand how the referees are interpreting the breakdown or the setpiece and then respond to it is fantastic.
"The (referees) already have the rules. Professional fouls, repeated infringements - and it's within their realm to utilise them when they see fit. I don't see any particular need to change that at all. It's already there."
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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