'It's not what we wanted': Foster reflects on 'scrappy' All Blacks match
The All Blacks have emerged victorious from their 100th clash with the Springboks, scoring a narrow 19-17 victory in Townsville on Saturday night, but their attack wasn’t able to kick into life as it has throughout 2021.
Despite entering the match in a rich vein of form, New Zealand struggled to build any dominance over South Africa. There was an obvious lack of continuity when the ball was delivered through the hands and it was difficult for the All Blacks to maintain possession for more than a few phases at a time.
That’s despite scoring a try in the first three minutes of the match, with right wing Will Jordan touching down off a break from hooker Codie Taylor. While many would have expected the All Blacks to build from their high-speed start, it was the Springboks who struck next, and the game quickly devolved into a scrappy affair.
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster acknowledged after that match that the game certainly hadn’t gone the way he’d hoped, but that the arm-wrestle that resulted also wasn’t a huge surprise, given the occasion and the opposition.
“Scrappy, humid conditions – it’s what we expected,” Foster said. “It’s not what we wanted. I have to say the performance wasn’t really what we wanted but look, we were forced into a lot of errors from their pressure and that was a game we expected to come up against.
“So hats off to them but I just loved our attitude when things weren’t going well. We still wanted to play, we showed a determination to keep fighting and got there in the end.
“I think clearly we made more errors than really what we wanted to. Some of our handling perhaps wasn’t at the level that we needed it to be and there’s a combination of players playing South Africa for the first time, the pressure they put us under and how it forces you, if you’re going to execute, you’ve got to execute at the top level. So nice little [lesson] for us.”
After some subdued performance last year, the All Blacks’ attack had started to tick into life in 2021, with the team racking up 422 points over their eight matches played in the lead-up to the Springboks test – averaging 53 per match. Even after excluding the games against Tonga and Fiji at the beginning of the year, the All Blacks were still scoring 41 points per game against their Rugby Championship opposition.
Other attacking metrics were equally as promising, with the All Blacks averaging 17 linebreaks per game until they struck the Springboks, who conceded just four.
That’s despite the Springboks struggling to contain the Wallabies in their previous two games, especially in last week’s 17-30 loss where Australia managed nine clean breaks.
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Clearly, South Africa stepped up their defence in the historic showdown with the All Blacks, with their high-pressure rush defence forcing a number of errors from their opposition.
While that would have no doubt frustrated Foster, the coach is unsurprisingly pleased that his side still emerged from the contest as victors.
“I think you can talk about pressure and you can talk about being strangled and we spoke a lot about that, the way that we knew the South Africans would want to play against us,” he said after the match. “It’s one thing to dismiss it as boring, which a lot of people do, but I think I used the words ‘ruthless’ and ‘clinical’ – and they’re very good at it.
“We ran out of time in many situations and that put our skillset under pressure so there was a real learning curve for us in that space, and particularly some of our backs, I just felt our timing was a bit off because of the pressure we were put under. But isn’t good to learn that lesson and have a win next to your name? So we’re really excited by that.
“We didn’t fold, we didn’t get too flustered, we kept playing and overall I’m happy, and can’t wait for next week now.”
Captain Ardie Savea backed up his coach’s sentiments.
“They put us under a lot of pressure and that forced us to make errors and our handling skills early on in the phases,” he said. “When we started, there was a [part] there where we started to build phases and hold onto the ball and we got a penalty out of it. I think it’s just up to us, being able to hold a bit more depth and being better in our skillset so that we can build phases and keep the ball in play.”
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The intense pressure the Springboks exerted on their opposites – both physically and mentally – should provide the All Blacks with some solid lessons moving forward. It was England’s in-your-face defence that the All Blacks struggled with in their semi-final loss at the 2019 World Cup and they managed to weather the storm significantly better in Saturday’s victory, but Foster says there’s still plenty of room for development in that area.
“Was it the same [as the World Cup loss]? It’s hard to say a win is the same as a loss so I don’t think so,” Foster said. “But I think there are some things… We are making strides in the physical side of the game and we are making some strides in our ability to deal with set-piece pressure and how we go about it.
“Clearly we’re not the finished product yet, we know that. But I love the way we stayed in the fight and we problem-solved and we muscled up and we made that game a massive contest in an arm-wrestle type game that probably wasn’t the game we wanted to have.”
The All Blacks and Springboks will square off once more on the Gold Coast next weekend.
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