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All Blacks brains trust have a lot to do to go from good to great

By Hamish Bidwell

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So much for the supposed Grand Slam.

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There is such a thing as an actual Grand Slam – last achieved by the All Blacks in 2010 – but it has nothing to do with the blessed Rugby Championship.

If Saturday’s 31-29 win by South Africa over New Zealand on Saturday achieved anything, it at least meant we could put the bogus Grand Slam talk to bed.

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John Kirwan on the concerning aspects of All Blacks’ loss to Springboks | The Breakdown
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John Kirwan on the concerning aspects of All Blacks’ loss to Springboks | The Breakdown

There’s still plenty for the All Blacks’ brains trust to chat about over the coming weeks, though, starting with how to win their own lineouts.

You’d have to say this has been a highly satisfactory tournament for the All Blacks overall.

Australia and Argentina were handily dispatched, before the real hostilities began. South Africa is still the team New Zealand has to measure itself against and, frankly, there’s not a lot between the sides.

Tonga, Fiji, Australia and Argentina told us nothing about this All Blacks side. They were easybeats, whose respective capitulations to the men and black left us none the wiser about New Zealand’s 2023 Rugby World Cup prospects.

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But after the 31-29 defeat and 19-17 win the previous week we now know where the All Blacks can do better.

Let’s start with the lineouts.

It’s not New Zealand’s preference to continually kick for goal. They’d far rather plug the corner from a penalty and try to construct something off a lineout. Problem is, if you can’t actually retain your ball, then that plan’s redundant.

The All Blacks appear to lack lineout options. They’re predictable and easily picked off and that’s a problem.

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Teams know the ball’s going hard and flat to No.2 and back themselves to beat the All Blacks to it. South Africa did that well on Saturday, but Argentina have done that as well this season.

Kieran Read’s general play might have waned, on the way to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but he remained a good lineout option. As it stands, New Zealand’s hookers don’t really have a dependable target to throw to at the front, nor the ability to accurately hit jumpers further back.

That’s not particularly desirable, in an era where set-piece ball is often some of your best.

Read’s retirement continues to highlight another issue. The All Blacks have plenty of good loose forwards, but virtually no specialists.

Blokes can do you a job at two or three positions, but no-one actually commands one.

Of those that played on Saturday, Luke Jacobson is a nondescript No.8 and Akira Ioane maybe isn’t the man to play blindside against credible and robust opposition.

Ardie Savea has his moments on the openside, but is best suited to the back of the scrum. Only problems with that are that he – for all the effort of his carries – is arguably too small and, if he’s not the 7, then who is?

The returning Sam Cane is the obvious option to go onto the openside but, with the best will in the world, his injury history doesn’t suggest you can rely on him surviving multiple matches there.

The All Blacks ought to have closed Saturday night’s game out, but couldn’t retain the ball in contact. The absence of a reliable fetcher definitely didn’t aid that.

The more you see of Ethan Blackadder, the more you want to see. The only issue is where?

Like so many of the loose forwards, Blackadder’s handy in a couple of spots, just not absolutely outstanding in one.

Developing a cohesive and complementary loose trio – preferably containing a reliable lineout option – has to be on the list of must haves for 2023.

Has Brad Weber supplanted TJ Perenara as Aaron Smith’s understudy? Maybe.

I have to say I thought Weber offered quite a lot against the Springboks.

I’m enjoying Beauden Barrett at 10. He’s hardly faultless, but the good appears to be outweighing the bad for the time being.

Midfield is interesting. There was subtlety and skill in Saturday’s pairing of David Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown, but they don’t put the frighteners up anyone. It’s a shame Ngani Laumape isn’t around anymore.

Rieko Ioane looked at home on the wing and I’d leave him there, while Jordie Barrett continues to grow at fullback.

Rugby, at the level it was played against the Springboks, is a game for big strong men. Yes, New Zealand clearly want an element of pace and skill in there too, but Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie felt like luxury items towards the end there.

There’s no doubt the pair will run rings around lesser teams, but weren’t so effective in this type of arena.

The All Blacks are good, but there’s some coaching to be done if they want to become great. Some ruthless decisions at the selection table wouldn’t go astray either.

On the whole, it’s just great to have finally seen this team tested.

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All Blacks brains trust have a lot to do to go from good to great

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