The All Blacks have been blowing teams off the park in 2018 – by an average scoreline of 40 to 12. All Test matches have followed a similar script, a tight first half followed by a second-half explosion of points.
Counter-attack and turnover play has been grabbing all the headlines, as the deadly efficiency of the All Blacks’ free-form play has been responsible for most of their points.
Despite tries coming by the bucketload, one area of the All Blacks’ game that hasn’t been firing is the typically productive set-piece.
Just three tries have been scored through set-piece strike plays this year, and two of these were one-pass plays direct from Aaron Smith – one try down a short-side to free Reiko Ioane and one try with Damian McKenzie running a hard line into the 9-10 channel (aided by some referee obstruction) against France.
It has been the least effective aspect of the All Blacks’ game (in terms of points scoring) so far this season, and offers at least one area with which the team can improve.
Eventually, there will be a day where turnover ball dries up, and New Zealand fans will be praying this isn’t during a World Cup knockout match. The world number two, Ireland, is renowned for mistake-free possession-based rugby. Even Scotland last year controlled the majority of the game at Murrayfield with a large possession percentage. The All Blacks striking with two set-piece plays in that game put the match just beyond the reach of the Scots, illustrating their importance.
The basic foundation of All Blacks set piece play
The All Blacks set-piece attack has been working from the same base play for a couple of years now.
The standard play used is having the second five-eighth take the ball to the line, with the option of playing the centre short or the first five looping around the back. The 12 will often get the ball direct from the halfback unless it’s a lineout, where a 10 can be used as a link to help the ball reach the midfield from the touchline.
The 12 can either hold the ball and take contact, play short to 13 or play the backdoor to 10 to attack the wider channels. Blindside wingers can be ‘attached’ at various stages of the play to offer another variable. Often the All Blacks use one of the first two options, which results in a simple midfield crash that sets up the All Blacks phase play.
The most central cog in the All Blacks set-piece attack has become the 12. He handles the ball more than the 10, either as a crash runner or as a decision-maker deciding to play the short runner or the backdoor.
This is why Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams determine how effective the All Blacks set-piece attack can be, and more often than not, when Williams is in the line up the side starts to open up teams more.
Crotty will do the job but can be more easily controlled by the opposition, whereas Williams brings size and offloading skills, which really causes headaches for the opposition and opens up the lane for the 13.
His size commands attention from multiple defenders, and if you only have one man on him, his arm can be free to get the ball away. Even if he commits two defenders he can get the arm away.
In the absence of Williams, this version of the All Blacks set-piece attack has been rather pedestrian, struggling to make frequent line breaks and score points.
This base play is called on most scrums and a large number of lineouts in good field position – in the opposition half or around halfway. When they go without their central playmaker, Williams, it is not nearly as effective.
The All Blacks have mainly used 6-man and 7-man lineouts across all areas of the field. In midfield situations, they have gone off the top and played with a bit more creativity, on occasion using the full backline to run strike plays.
On these limited occasions they haven’t turned the ball over, but haven’t deceived enough to create line breaks. The more moving parts, the more difficult the play is to execute. The All Blacks haven’t found the timing yet to pull off impressive strike plays on a regular basis.
Just one has been done this year, with McKenzie and Williams as the 10-12 combination, using the same base play with the blind winger Rieko Ioane lurking inside off McKenzie.
Work in progress
Beauden Barrett’s running game is his obvious strength, while he isn’t renown for ball playing flat at the line. He can distribute early ball across the backline, short and long with reliability, but hasn’t been seen taking on the line and playing others into space often.
It could be said that Barrett’s role during set-piece has been minimized like no other 10 in international rugby due to the importance of the 12 to the All Blacks set-piece attack. He rarely plays first receiver, and if he does it’s usually to distribute early ball. They haven’t used him as a playmaker and haven’t found the best way to create space out wide for him as a runner either.
Without the natural force of Sonny Bill Williams in the lineup, the side lacks a true ball player who can play flat and free the likes of Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith, resulting in teething issues.
Aaron Smith can take some of the playmaking load, but a balanced playbook around both 9-10 keeps the opposition guessing. Using Smith frequently will always be in close channels, forgoing the chance to attack the wider channels.
Until they can find someone who can provide fill that second ball player role in tandem with Smith, the back line won’t be opening up teams in one phase strikes. McKenzie is probably the most developed in this area, but won’t be starting at 10 anytime soon.
Necessity or nice-to-have?
Although they haven’t been scoring directly off strike plays, the All Blacks have been finding the chalk a few phases later after building pressure through normal patterns. They have been able to break down France and Australia fairly easily with ball in hand.
With England and Ireland to come later in the year, there is a need to find a better return from the set-piece platform. Both those sides are better at absorbing pressure during phase play with 14-men available in the defensive line.
When playing a strong defensive side, the opportunity to strike with the extra space afforded in the 7-on-7 situation set-piece situations is golden, which is why finding a lethal set-piece attack is imperative before the Northern tour.
Having a healthy Sonny Bill Williams back will immediately boost the set-piece attack but the All Blacks need to explore more scrum plays that attack the edge, showing more intent than simply crashing into the midfield. Improved efficiency from set-piece strike plays will provide the third dimension to the attack that has been missing in 2018.