The All Blacks historically have feasted on turnovers and counter-attack, scoring roughly 45 per cent of their tries from opposition ball while the other 55 per cent of All Blacks tries come from their own possessions.
Despite having the Super Rugby player of the year and fullback dynamo Damian McKenzie roaming the backfield, the All Blacks only scored two tries directly from counter-attack during the Rugby Championship, and a total of six tries from turnovers – an unusually low 22 per cent of tries from opposition ball.
The lion’s share of tries is coming from their own possession at 78 per cent, through phase play (49), set piece (24) and a small portion from quick taps (5).
With nearly half of all tries this season coming from phase-play, one man (or position) is at the heart of driving this. No, it’s not Beauden Barrett, even though he has also been outstanding.
It’s Aaron Smith.
Smith led the All Blacks in try assists with seven (equal to Barrett). The next best was four by reserve halfback TJ Perenara, which illustrates how much the halfback is relied upon to create plays.
Aaron Smith controls the flow of All Blacks, facilitating and dictating the speed of the phase play, wearing a defensive line down and creating ‘lightning quick’ ball for the backs to work off. Barrett is a go-to man when an opportunity presents itself, however, Smith is the one building up pressure on the opposition line within the All Blacks structure.
He also has become as much of a playmaker as Barrett, being able to sense opportunities and break the opposition line himself with flat ball off the base of the ruck.
Smith the conductor
Re-visiting the third Bledisloe test is a perfect example of some of Smith’s best work. The All Blacks have a lineout deep inside the Wallabies red zone. From the lineout, Smith allows the forwards to take over possession with a basic ‘tanks’ play – tight pick and go’s.
Smith is constantly stationed behind the ruck keeping the tempo slow, allowing the forwards to take possession. When Smith senses an opportunity, he will take the reigns and increase the speed of attack. After seven phases Smith wants to take over.
Smith directs forwards to the right and will feed Scott Barrett (5) short into the defence with his first pass.
On the next phase, Smith has now identified an opportunity to the right with a five-on-four overlap. Up until now, the play has been tight and slow.
The Wallabies ruck defenders (marked A and B) are crouched anticipating another forward runner, whilst the fringe defenders (marked one and two) are upright and on their heels, not expecting Smith to change the tempo and use width.
Within five seconds the All Blacks will score.
Smith is going to isolate Folau (marked 2), by throwing a double cutout pass flat to Sopoaga (3) committing both the ‘B’ defender and the ‘one’ defender into a ruck.
Sopoaga goes into contact taking out the two defenders, opening up Waisake Naholo’s lane. Folau is drawn in by Crotty’s support line, but is not taken to ground so is able to reset.
He has no support as tired forwards are nowhere near getting around the corner. Folau is seen screaming for support at the top of the picture but they cannot run faster than Smith can pass.
Smith sends Cane (number 7) right to create the 2-on-1 and fires a perfect face ball across Cane to Naholo who goes over untouched.
Double cutout followed by another cutout. Before the Wallabies could figure out what was happening it was over. A masterclass from Smith on how to wear down the defence and change the pace quickly to strike.
Smith the Strike man
His ability as a playmaker has also been utilised from set-piece by the All Blacks. In this scrum move, Smith is going to captalise on a poor defensive set-up by the Wallabies.
The Wallabies are so concerned about the threat of Rieko Ioane on the blind side that they position two backs on that side, Curtis Rona (11) and Kurtley Beale (12).
Even worse, Genia (9) positions on the blind side as well, even though the Wallabies blindside flanker could break off the scrum and provide blind cover if the All Blacks break off an eight-nine blind.
Based on the set-up of two backs on the blind side, the All Blacks would cancel any blind play they had in mind and would go open, as they already have been given a numbers advantage that way.
As the play unfolds Genia gets stuck behind the scrum as the All Blacks go to the open side. Aaron Smith is going to receive an eight-nine pass and create a six-on-four situation on the open side.
The All Blacks are going to run a ‘tunnel ball’ play that is designed to get Barrett the ball outside the opposite centre. The All Blacks midfield will angle in and Barrett will drift out the back. Smith, on an eight-nine pass, will get the ball on the run and fire the ball long to Barrett out the back.
Except, there is one problem. The Wallabies have their winger, Speight, defending at centre and he has no alignment on Ryan Crotty.
Smith reads this and hits Crotty flat who goes straight under the sticks for an easy try.
Aaron Smith is a genuine playmaker equal to if not more dangerous than Beauden Barrett for the All Blacks. He shoulders the responsibility of running the phase play and building a platform for Barrett to attack off, but also makes plays himself in both phase play and set piece.
In the absence of the usual uncontainable counter-attack, these two players have been creating more tries than ever from the All Blacks own possession. The All Blacks scored 37 tries in this year’s Rugby Championship. Last year’s Rugby Championship production? 38.
The evidence is clear: Smith is the main man for the All Blacks.