Another loss for the All Blacks but Ian Foster is half-right
The Springboks were comfortable throughout the test and the lead was never really under threat, but the wheels of motion have started to move in the right direction for the All Blacks.
Whether it was the ‘best’ of the season is debatable given their first up 42-19 win over Ireland but Ian Foster is right in that some areas of their game were much better.
Defensively it was always going to be easier than Ireland to make the right reads as the Springboks play direct with power running. The All Blacks didn’t give up line breaks in phase play and soaked up the first two passages of attack from South Africa’s lineout with the Barrett boys closing the last man over the sideline.
That was a definite improvement after conceding early line breaks directly up the middle to Irish forwards.
The pack stood up in close quarters and largely handled what the Bok runners gave them. They were forced backwards at times but didn’t have the doors blown off and cut runners down just as often.
It was a promising defensive performance up front from the pack as a unit. Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett all generated one turnover each, some of them at critical times.
A two-man job with Ioane chopping a Bok runner and Savea snatching onto the ball killed off an attack deep inside their own 22 around the half hour mark. At 10-0 down, it was a crucial stop and sparked a swing in momentum.
Winning a healthy amount of turnovers has been a problem for this pack and they took steps to improve this in Mbombela.
The All Blacks’ own ball carriers were technically much better, bringing pace onto the ball and staying square and direct more often. This didn’t pay off in any major way but it was a massive step in the right direction.
Scott Barrett had a dynamic burst in the first half which had explosiveness unlike anything the All Black forwards have demonstrated so far this year.
His carry into the space between two Springboks surprised the outside defender Luhkanyo Am, who had to pull out of the contact or risk colliding with prop Frans Malherbe.
The strong carry allowed the Crusaders lock to find an arm free for a potential offload and he needed an outside back in support running a line. The ideal man running in support in this situation would have been Rieko Ioane, not George Bower.
The first step for the All Blacks to improving their attacking production is to create more moments like this, which they did.
They have to persist with challenging the line, flirting with contact and playing the ball late to be any chance of creating space elsewhere and keeping the line speed honest, while support runners need to continue to run lines in anticipation.
Ardie Savea brought speed to the carry in phase play and from set-piece, hitting the ball well and taking it to the line. On this occasion a smart inside ball to Taukei’aho punctured the inside channels:
There were decent patches of play like this but the issue for the All Blacks was keeping the pressure on.
They couldn’t keep the ball for long enough and would turn the ball over at the breakdown under duress from a strong Springbok pack or make an unforced error.
But the fundamentals of what they were trying to do with ball-in-hand was lightyears better than their last start against Ireland, pushing at the line forward, running into space, playing square and playing the ball late.
When the fundamentals are in place, it comes down to execution, which wasn’t totally there in Mbombela but on a different day can come off.
The key is persistence and having the intent to continue searching for the play. If the fundamentals aren’t there to begin with, the attack will never produce anything.
The set-piece launches were also far better than what they were against Ireland, improving in timing and motion.
The All Blacks always use this lineout play against the Springboks and the timing was in sync and the execution was very good from everyone:
Barrett took the pass on the run, Havili and Clarke got their timing right, and Clarke found Ioane with a deft touch short ball.
Just one more pass was required to break open the Springboks with the last man Makazole Mapimpi biting in. If Ioane had an offload away to his fullback on the outside at speed, it was on.
That is the decision fullback Jordie Barrett must make: to commit to the opportunity developing on the current play or stay deep and think about the next phase. On this occasion, running a line outside his centre may have been worth the risk.
Beauden Barrett’s breakout from his own in-goal twenty minutes into the game was a promising piece of counter-attack.
Ioane’s infield pass went awol, ending the opportunity, but the intent was there to keep the ball alive which has been missing.
The first step towards rebuilding the interlinking free-form play is to be aware of options inside and out, keep the pass available, flood the runner with supporting options and then perfect the execution.
The All Blacks outside men need to continue to work hard with an optimistic view that every half chance will be theirs, rather than a wait-and-see effort approach.
When Clarke did break free into the open field late in the second half, we saw what a destructive runner he can be.
If he can get more of those broken field opportunities through support running rather than his own carries, the All Blacks will get far more out of their dynamic left wing weapon and Clarke can show the world his game-breaking ability.
There was an overall improvement from the All Blacks’ attack to go hunting at the line in greater numbers for chances, whether they came or not.
This is the kind of off-the-ball effort in support play that has been missing. Eventually the opportunity will come and someone needs to be there to take advantage of it.
There were changes to the starting team that were proven to be the correct decisions, indicating that more might be needed.
The selection of Taukei’aho paid off and the Chiefs hooker deserves to retain his starting spot based on his performance. The All Blacks need to regenerate the pack and Taukei’aho pushed his case forward with a strong showing.
His first two lineout throws of the game were under pressure from five metres out and he nailed them both, while adding some punch in defence and with carrying, which has always been his strength.
The lineout operated well with the Chiefs hooker on the field and fell apart with the injection of the experienced Coles, which in the end, is a big tick for Taukei’aho given the quality of the opposition lineout.
When Finlay Christie came on, the tempo changed – he brought zip and speed that was previously missing. Obviously there were issues with the service when Aaron Smith was on; he is a great player, but he just can’t bring the same level of tempo at his age.
There was a marked difference when Christie was on at halfback. Richie Mo’unga had his best showing against a strong test team in his brief cameo, backing himself to play flat and keep probing.
Caleb Clarke was dynamic with ball-in-hand and showed why he needs an extended run in the No 11 jersey.
While Havili had a better game than the third Irish test, overall he has offered less in his two tests than what Quinn Tupaea showed in his two starts. An opportunity to start for the Chiefs No 12 at Ellis Park wouldn’t go amiss.
Overall, the Springboks scored two tries from errors and had nothing else in attack, accumulating penalties to secure their second biggest winning margin of 16 points.
It was comfortable for South Africa but not out of reach for New Zealand.
The aerial battles and the breakdown were the two biggest areas of concern for Foster’s side. The way that Ireland defeated the All Blacks was far more concerning overall, but a loss is still a loss for the All Blacks.
They are still a ‘bad’ All Blacks team when compared to the standards set before them, you simply can’t hide from five losses in six tests, but there was more to like from their efforts against the Springboks than from the last two tests against Ireland.
The South African media seem infatuated with the Boks’ performance, which was solid and a very good one, but it was by no means a no-contest. It was a physical encounter but the Springboks did not bully anyone out of the park.
A win in the second test would put the Springboks in the box seat for The Rugby Championship, while a loss would be typical for this squad and put them at 60 per cent on the year with three wins from five.
If the All Blacks square the two-match series at Ellis Park, it would still be a great escape and the Springboks would rue the missed chance.
The job is really only half done for Jacques Nienaber’s side but based on the detail in the first test, the All Blacks will be more optimistic heading into the second.
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