In the post-mortem of the 16-9 loss to Ireland in Dublin last November, a review of the All Blacks tactics showed some very peculiar and unusual behaviour on a night where energy seemed to be missing at the end of a very long season.
It seemed as if the All Blacks had packed away everything that defines them, playing a foreign, one-dimensional style of rugby typified by a lack of ball movement in a move that seemed to ‘shadow-box’ Ireland.
A ‘carry-first’ approach was apparent throughout the whole game, evident in some telling statistics.
The forward pack, bench or starting, had zero offloads, just one tip pass and used the backdoor pass to a back just four times from a possible 29 situations in the game.
That’s only 13 percent of the time they moved the ball once the target off the scrumhalf received the ball.
Attacking rugby using catch-pass skills is in the DNA of All Blacks rugby, whose forwards are among the most skilful in the world. To not promote the ball all night and move to collision rugby was a major anomaly that raised some suspicion as to what was going on.
Were they holding back and giving Ireland a false reading in a one-off meaningless game a year out from the World Cup, the ultimate prize?
Fast forward to this year’s quarter-final match and Ireland have been torn apart 46-14 by an All Black side still re-defining their style of play, but also pulling everything out of their toolbox they did not use in Dublin.
After just 10 minutes in Tokyo, the All Blacks’ forwards had bettered their offload and tip pass totals from Dublin as they looked to work over an Irish pack and create momentum through sharp incisions up the middle.
With the All Blacks using a ‘flush’ pod system to move the ball to the middle of the field from the edge, the All Blacks central three-man pod began using the tip pass early.
The ‘flush’ ball goes out the back of two dummy runners to the first receiver, Richie Mo’unga (10), to get the ball quickly to the outside of the oncoming rush defence (CJ Stander).
The three-man pod began their ‘domino’ timing to hit Ireland with tip passes to a deeper support runner.
This time Sam Whitelock (5) plays a beautifully late pop pass to Ardie Savea (6), creating an incision, which forces Irish defenders to close from outside-in and make side-on, two-man tackles.
The ‘edge-to-middle’ in one phase combined with the ball-playing forwards started to open up the Irish in the middle where sluggish tight five defenders were stationed.
Although Best makes the tackle, it actually pressures the next man out to cover as Best collapsing in opens up space beside the tackled player.
It was this area that the All Blacks looked to expose by doubling down on a pop pass off the ground after the tip pass.
After this phase, they play back to the right edge before bringing the ball back roughly 30 seconds later testing the same defenders in the middle of the field.
Once again we can see how the flush system beats the oncoming rush defence where receiver Beauden Barrett (15) is, getting the ball to the pod facing the passive middle part of the defensive line.
This time Read draws Best (2) putting pressuring on Josh van der Flier (7) to cover the tip pass to Codie Taylor (2).
As van der Flier collapses in, the next man out Peter O’Mahoney (6) is now tasked with closing the lane that opens up for Jack Goodhue (13) on a delayed support option.
The All Black backs sitting out the back of the central pod started to identify this opening and ran support lines accordingly.
The All Blacks deliberately looked to use a pop pass off the ground to expose the space that this incision from a tip pass opened up.
More opportunities started to present as the first half wore on and the All Blacks continually attacked the middle.
Anton Lienert-Brown (12) sensed the opportunity, shooting for the gap and only a solid wrap tackle on Read prevents a pop pass being sent his way.
The All Blacks continued to roll on Ireland by hitting wide and then slicing them in the middle via these methods, eventually setting the platform for Aaron Smith’s first try sniping around the ruck.
Early in the second half, the pop pass paid dividends for a try of its own when a great ‘unders’ line from Read sucked in two and opened the lane for Taylor to dive over, punishing an unaware Healy in the process.
The level of skill shown by the All Blacks’ forwards was night and day from the Dublin effort and ran the Irish tight five ragged as the tip balls and offloading often drew tackle attempts from up to three or four players per pass.
These extra up-and-downs for the Irish defence only worked to tire out the engine room of the Irish pack. Across the whole park the All Blacks were looking to keep the ball alive in similar fashion.
Another key aspect of Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks in Dublin was their high-risk rush defence, jamming outside-in to collapse in on the All Blacks midfield, particularly from set-piece plays.
All of the All Blacks’ openside scrum plays were to the left on that night, but they were all throttled inside leaving strike weapon Rieko Ioane with zero touches from scrums and left Beauden Barrett (10), moved to fullback late in the game, wide open.
Instead of trying to ‘manage’ the All Blacks’ outside threats with a passive up-and-out line, Ireland went all-in on preventing the ball getting there in the first place and it worked.
This time, the All Blacks were able to prey on that, adding in a few cross-field kicks, which Richie Mo’unga dropped perfectly on a pin, and striking after pulling off a Sevu Reece ‘overload’ play that worked to get the ball outside Keith Earls jamming in.
The play used was a variation of this one used previously by the All Blacks against Argentina last year.
The speed of the blind winger is crucial to overload the far side and create an overlap.
With Sevu Reece, the All Blacks have a similar speedster to cover long distances and Beauden Barrett will offer the holding line that Cane used against Argentina.
The All Blacks run this play with an extremely flat backline and the margins are slim against Ireland’s outside-in rush defence.
Quick hands through 10 must get the ball wide to centre Jack Goodhue, and Reece must also be coming around the corner rapidly as the pass from Goodhue will be delivered before he gets there.
Garry Ringrose (13) isn’t able to close down the play, only milliseconds too late as Goodhue frees the ball. Last year, Ringrose and Earls did manage to close down the plays, which were high-risk but they delivered. This time round they were not.
Barrett’s line attracts Earls who can do nothing to stop Reece heading past him in the opposite direction around the edge.
Reece is able to free Bridge down the sideline after committing fullback Rob Kearney and the All Blacks score one phase later from close range for the second time through Aaron Smith.
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The All Blacks also used deficiencies in Ireland’s lineout defence to open up space out wide, beating them to the punch to force other numbers to join in.
The All Blacks use a 6+1 lineout of six forwards and another at halfback (Matt Todd). The scheme they use is brilliant to create a maul at the back of the lineout.
Savea originally at the two spot, ran a slip (fake jump and bail), allowing prop Angus Ta’avao (18) to move from the front all the way to lift a back-tracking Scott Barrett near the tail.
Matt Todd, who started at halfback, moved into the lineout to lift from behind, while the other forwards moved early to form the maul while the jumper is up.
Because Ireland competed and failed to steal, the three tied up with a jump couldn’t do anything to stop the maul, and the slip left Andrew Porter (18) redundant at the front along with Conor Murray defending at hooker.
All the All Blacks forwards were able to congregate around the back, where Ireland had only one man on the ground. You can see the mismatch forming.
The result is a power drive that steamrolled another 10 metres, forcing Josh van der Flier (7) to bite down from the backline and join, compressing the backs in narrow.
The All Blacks used Sonny Bill Williams as a decoy to run a flat option off TJ Perenara to hold the now-narrow backline defence, giving space and time to Mo’unga (10) in behind to make a pin-point cross-kick.
The acres of space available out wide is in part created by the power maul, and Mo’unga landed a dime for Reece hugging the touchline.
Reece is tackled down a metre short and they score on the next phase through Todd flat off the scrumhalf.
It is worth noting that the whole play could blow up with an overcooked or undercooked cross-field kick but Mo’unga’s placement was perfect all night.
His other one to Bridge in the first half was also tightly placed out wide with a small margin for error.
It was a clinical performance in nearly all aspects by the All Blacks who opened up their attack and went full bore at Ireland, dealing them something to handle that they had not seen or handled before.
They were aided in part by a host of Irish handling errors that fed the machine too much possession to withstand, especially with the resumption of ‘normal’ All Blacks rugby. The All Blacks were able to bank another try to Beauden Barrett through a loose pass that hit the turf on a set play by Ireland and an early lead proved too much as Ireland isn’t built to chase 20+ points.
It is true that the All Blacks have evolved their attack in many ways since Dublin, but it is also true that last November’s performance was already unlike anything else they had dished up that year.
If Hansen and co. deliberately ‘bottled’ last year’s test to fool Ireland, they have pulled off a remarkable con-job in the process, a theory that is supported by how they approached both games.
And it worked.
The original analysis of Dublin test
Analysis: Did the All Blacks ‘bottle it’ and shadow-box against Ireland?
Explanation of the new All Blacks system in 2019
Analysis: The All Blacks’ 11th hour innovation to kill off Northern Hemisphere line speed
Eddie Jones claims England spied on at training:
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