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All Blacks side full of 'character' could use some more talent in search of new identity

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto and David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images/Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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Ireland’s 29-20 win over the All Blacks was just what many felt was coming after a featherweight calendar year of opponents for Ian Foster’s side.

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There were four true tests this year that would challenge the All Blacks’ credentials – the two Springboks clashes, Ireland in Dublin and this week’s test against France in Paris. After falling to Ireland, they are now one from three in those decisive fixtures.

Unfortunately, the annual Bledisloe Cup procession came at a time when the Wallabies had not bolstered their squad with experienced men like Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, and having the first two tests at Eden Park almost guaranteed the result.

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Can the All Blacks bounce back against France? Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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Can the All Blacks bounce back against France? Aotearoa Rugby Pod

They were solid test wins, but Australia’s self-destructive ways played perfectly into New Zealand’s hands.

However, while the All Blacks dominated those fixtures, the same can’t be said of their clashes against South Africa and Ireland, and the performances of certain individuals hasn’t helped.

The Crusaders have a fine Super Rugby side, the best in the competition, but many of those players seem to only show up for Scott Robertson. Not all, but a fair few seem to always have their best days in red in black.

Put them under Foster, with his game plans, against quality test opposition, and the aura they have at club level dissipates.

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Whether it is the unfamiliarity of the mix of players around them, or trying to put square pegs in round holes in Foster’s system, they just haven’t produced convincing displays against the world’s top sides.

One of the old successful formulas for the All Blacks was having mostly Crusaders forwards combined with a good portion of Hurricanes outside backs.

Those from the capital who lined up out wide included Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu (post-Blues) in the late 90s and, in more recent times, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea, and Cory Jane.

It seems the All Blacks have now skewed towards using mainly small Crusaders outside backs – such as George Bridge, Jack Goodhue, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, and David Havili – to go along with the forwards.

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Perhaps the best way to get a Crusaders-laden All Blacks team firing is to put Robertson in charge. Otherwise, perhaps a wider range of skillsets for test-level rugby can be looked at and utilised.

Aside from Bridge’s aerial catastrophe in Townsville, his ability to manufacture anything out of half-chances in 2021 has been non-existent.

Given some space to run, but plenty of work still to do, Bridge hasn’t been able to finish anything or keep play alive despite trying hard.

The most dynamic left wing option in New Zealand is Salesi Rayasi, who offers a mix of power running and offloading that Bridge can’t.

If the All Blacks want more explosive plays from their endeavours out wide, then a guy like Rayasi over Bridge is a no-brainer.

The Hurricanes winger routinely beats two or three defenders, finds space for a backhand flick or deft one-hand offload, and produces big plays.

Maybe he doesn’t yet have the fortitude for test rugby, or whatever the wrap is on him. We don’t know what intangibles he has, looking from the outside.

What you can’t deny, though, is that he has an elite, untapped ability, and watching Bridge admirably produce very little in his continued opportunities is untenable.

Richie Mo’unga is a fine player that has shown glimpses of his class at the top level, but has yet to really light the world on fire and was once again kept in check against Ireland.

Despite Mo’unga’s dominant Super Rugby form, there are areas of the international game that just better suit Beauden Barrett.

Barrett is tall timber under the high ball, a bigger body in the front line and has that knack of producing game-changing plays. More importantly, has over 100 tests of experience. Back at 10 this year, the All Blacks have looked better with him in the saddle.

David Havili was deserving of his All Blacks recall, but it is apparent that the side also needs a damaging midfielder capable of punching through elite defences at 12, which he is not suited to do.

Now that Ngani Laumape has departed New Zealand, there are really only two prospects outside of the young Quinn Tupaea floating around the country that can fit the bill – Peter and Thomas Umaga-Jensen.

Big, powerful, natural runners, the Umaga-Jensen twins are gifted players that New Zealand Rugby needs to get the best out of because it seems they absolutely need to.

At outside centre in 2020 for the Hurricanes, Peter was a revelation in Super Rugby Aotearoa, showcasing line-running that no midfielder in New Zealand possesses. There isn’t a centre here who can time a line and hit a hole like he does.

His form was so compelling last year that, after bullying the Crusaders’ backs in Christchurch along the way, he earned an All Black debut, but quickly found himself on the outer at the Hurricanes for unknown reasons.

Thomas has had injuries at the Highlanders and unfortunately hasn’t shown what he is capable of.

Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown are sound options that will always get picked because of their ability in defence – particularly the latter, who is an outstanding defender at test level – but both are very similar in stature and style.

If Peter Umaga-Jensen polishes up his defence to go along with his ball-in-hand ability, then he can offer something neither of them can’t – power running and line breaking ability. If he can also play as a 12, he would fill a gaping need at the top level for this type of sorely-needed midfielder.

New Zealand currently has an All Blacks side full of supposed ‘character’ players from the Crusaders. Can they not instil character in some of the guys with more talent? Isn’t that what the All Blacks environment does?

The days of being able to let the peripheral talent languish domestically until they ultimately decide to head offshore are gone. That is a luxury only afforded when you are on top, which the All Blacks no longer are.

The 2023 campaign shapes as perhaps the best chance to capture another World Cup for the foreseeable future for the All Blacks. Post-2023, things start to look a little grim, at least from a depth standpoint.

When the golden generation from the 2011 U20 side eventually move on, a decade of mostly unsuccessful under-20 sides becomes the foundation of New Zealand Rugby, and thus underpin the All Blacks.

The 2011 crop are entering their twilight years and it will be their last chance in France, although it is unknown what two more years of test rugby for the likes of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Sam Whitelock, or even Brodie Retallick will do.

A scattering of players from the two championship-winning U20 teams of 2015 and 2017 – such as Will Jordan, Asafo Aumua, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson and Caleb Clarke – are filtering through to complement experience with youth.

Then there were the fast bloomers – Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane – who were elevated through the ranks early. There is enough quality there to make a fist of the next World Cup, but clearly there needs to be a re-think in some areas.

An All Blacks backline can be built with better athletes possessing more size, power, skill and speed to play a more bullying and enterprising style of rugby by integrating players like Rayasi and Umaga-Jensen along with the likes of Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett.

And of course, they won’t be able to do anything with poor service from the base of the ruck which puts TJ Perenara on the outer. The Hurricanes halfback can be great if they build the game around him, as the Hurricanes do. As a running 9 with good vision, they have constructed set-piece plays around Perenara as a ball-player.

It’s just that the All Blacks don’t do that. If the role is about service to the backs, it’s got to be Aaron Smith and the closest clones to him, with Folau Fakatava as the change-up to provide the hyper-athletic 9.

The small-ball approach already failed at the last World Cup against England. Hansen went with Goodhue and Lienert-Brown at the expense of Sonny Bill Williams, and picked Reece and Bridge over Ioane on the wings. They could not arrest control of the game.

We are gathering further evidence that this approach will end the same way. Right now Foster is just proving Scott Robertson is a better coach by rolling out his Crusaders players but with inferior results.

Regardless of what happens against France, change is required in 2022 to build an All Blacks team that is harder to stop, one that has a new identity rather than being a hangover from the Hansen era.

If Foster wants to get out of Hansen’s shadow, thinking a bit differently is required.

Sticking to the ideas that failed in 2019, will surely lead to the same result in 2023.

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All Blacks side full of 'character' could use some more talent in search of new identity

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