Ian Foster question Fiji's 'low' breakdown strategy
While the All Blacks may have triumphed 57-23 against Fiji in Dunedin last weekend, they certainly weren’t able to comprehensively outplay their Pacific Island opposition, with the breakdown causing many a problem for the home team.
Even when the All Blacks were able to maintain possession, the Flying Fijians were able to disrupt and slow down rucks, stagnating attacks and scuppering chances of getting the ball out wide with any regular success.
Ahead of this weekend’s rematch, Ian Foster has suggested his team needs to up their game at the breakdown – but also suggested that the All Blacks weren’t necessarily caught by surprise at how efficient Fiji were.
“It’s what we wanted,” Foster explained. “We wanted a tough, physical game and we were probably a little bit less surprised than many others about what was coming so is it good to get reminded? Yes it is.
“And the good thing is that’s going to be no different to what we’re going to get in the remaining of the test matches we’ve got.”
While the work of the Fijians at the breakdown was commendable, Foster also laid the blame on the All Blacks’ ball-carriers and indicated that’s where the team had focussed most of their attention this week ahead of Saturday’s rematch in Hamilton.
“We’re always looking for improvement everywhere but part of the thing is to diagnose the one thing, if you move the most, going to get the biggest bang for your buck and we think it’s the ball-carrier,” he said.
“We had to improve a number of aspects from last week, there’s no doubt about that. Often the breakdown looks like you get exposed from a physical side but some of it’s a strategy side.
“We’re still trying to get used to where we’re going to make the contact point and if it surprises people then often we get a bit short but that’s all part of us growing our game so overall we got some nice lessons there and we won lots of turnovers as well. It went both ways.
“But I think the main focus is probably on our ball-carrying, more than anything. And often as people get to know what we want and it becomes clear, their instincts take over. Whereas if you get hesitant in that space and the ball-carrier doesn’t do his job then the next role’s quite hard.”
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Following the match, some on social media questioned the legality of some of Fiji’s breakdown work, with defenders often not fully releasing the tackled player, or using their hands to support their own body weight at the ruck.
While those areas were policed quite harshly throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, old habits started to creep in during the Trans-Tasman competition and perhaps reflected the approach taken to the breakdown in Europe.
Due to Covid, the All Blacks haven’t played a team from Europe since the 2019 World Cup – but the majority of Fiji’s players are based in France, where the breakdown is famously attritrional.
When queried whether coming up against ‘European’ opposition had played a part in the All Blacks’ struggles, Foster was non-commital and suggested that Fiji’s tactics may have been slightly less than conventional.
“There’s probably a little bit of that,” he said. “They were very low at the breakdown last week and we put a lot of questions about how they could do be that low and holding their weight but it’s something that we’ve just got to make sure we’re in there quickly and we dominate that territory.
It's not happened overnight, but Fiji are perhaps one of the best teams in the world when it comes to breakdown warfare. Do the #AllBlacks have the personnel to counter the inevitable assault on Saturday? #NZLvFIJ #FijiRugby
Analysis from Nick Bishop ? https://t.co/AD6X4qNtjm
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) July 14, 2021
“But hey, it’s a game, the breakdown’s like that every week. It’s not like it’s new. I felt we were still able to get the flow of ball when we really wanted to but there were clearly a couple of situations that we were short.
“It’s not just a Northern Hemisphere thing and it’s something that we’re pretty good at doing normally and in large parts of that game we actually did do pretty well and we showed that when we got it right, we can put a lot of points on them so it’s just a matter of being more consistent through the 80 minutes,” he later added.
The All Blacks have rotated their loose forward trio for this weekend’s match, bringing in Akira Ioane, Ardie Savea and Luke Jacobson. Savea, as a specialist openside flanker first and foremost, should have more luck than Ethan Blackadder did last week in the breakdowns, while Jacobson has also spent time in the No 7 jersey throughout his career.
Fiji, meanwhile, have benched Albert Tuisue for Peceli Yato but it’s the loss of Botia in the midfield that could prove the most damaging to their breakdown heroics.
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