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If the All Blacks can’t scrummage, they can’t win

By Hamish Bidwell
New Zealand's Cam Roigard (2L) at the scrum during the pre-World Cup Rugby Union match between New Zealand and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium in west London, on August 25, 2023. (Photo by Ian Kington / AFP via Getty Images)

If you can’t scrummage, you can’t win.

I know that’s not sexy.

I know we’re meant to waffle on about Plan Bs and skill-execution, in the wake of the All Blacks’ humbling defeat to South Africa at Twickenham.


We’re meant to lament referees and TMOs and wonder aloud about who might dominate the Rugby World Cup.

But the bald facts are that if your set-pieces are no good and your tight five gets towelled up, there’s not a lot else you can do to be competitive.

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Losing 35-7 to the Springboks wasn’t good. Equally, the game doesn’t count. It’s a friendly, a marketing exercise, a tune up.

I’ve worked on the basis of credit where it’s due with the All Blacks this season.

There was nothing creditable about their performance against South Africa and that’s on the locks and front row.

If they’re no good, the loose forwards are no good. If your scrum and lineout are under pressure, your backs are left to scramble.

The thing that’s earned the All Blacks praise this year has been their physicality.


The tight five hasn’t been pushed around too often. Teams haven’t had their way with New Zealand at ruck and maul time.

There has, instead, been a ferocity from the All Blacks at collision time that’s created a platform from which the loose forwards – and everyone else – could play.

It would be easy to pick holes in Saturday’s loose trio. To wonder about the option-taking of Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga.

I mean, an up-and-under from an attacking lineout on the opposition 22 probably is a low point for All Blacks playmaking.


But that’s all down to the dudes up front, not necessarily Smith, who was the culprit on that occasion.

I could go through guys in the backline who made bad decisions or didn’t cope with South Africa’s defensive pressure.

Again, that’s on the boys in jumpers one to five.

If this was the pattern of the season, if the All Blacks had been bullied all year, then I’d be pessimistic about their Rugby World Cup prospects.

Sure, there’s a blueprint for beating New Zealand. We know that and the team knows that.

But, up until London last Saturday, they’d played with the vigour to combat the barrage of physicality and line speed everyone knows is coming.

If your scrum goes backwards or hits the deck repeatedly, you’re stuffed. Refs will ping you and your opponents will heap pressure on your playmakers.

The same applies if you can’t win clean lineout ball.

Prior to this season, I would’ve said the problems in the pack were endemic. That no matter how talented the team might be, it simply didn’t have the grunt to be competitive.

The All Blacks – in particular the tight five – have largely shown me otherwise this year.

It’s up to them to do the same again now.


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