Jake White: The All Blacks are in uncharted territory
I’ll tell you a little story. When I was coach of the Springboks, after a particularly tough encounter against the All Blacks, I remember going into their changing room in Wellington to thank the coaches for the game.
When I looked around, it was like the entire brains trust of New Zealand rugby had assembled in a modestly-sized room. Graham Henry was sitting there looking scholarly. A few metres away Steve Hansen was chewing the fat with some players, and to his left, former New Zealand international Wayne Graham was taking a pew. In another corner was Sir Brian Lochore locked in conversation with a huddle of players. At the doorway, stood the late Sir Jock Hobbs. In the room that night was decades of hard-earned rugby nous. I realised then that what comes out of the changing room over generations is deep, deep alignment. A legacy, if you like. And for many, many years, no one could lay a glove on the All Blacks in that area.
I thought about this after the Test in Nelspruit, where Ian Foster’s men registered their fourth loss in five Tests. I wondered where their much-revered system had gone awry because the All Blacks are in uncharted territory. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind.
After the match, I was told it had been biggest winning margin the Boks had registered over the All Blacks in 94 years, which is quite staggering, and their relative fall in grace was compounded when it was announced that they had fallen to fifth place in the rankings, which dates back to when records began nearly 20 years ago.
Having coached against them on countless occasions, I know how tough it was to play against them in the glory years. For 11 years of Richie McCaw’s captaincy, I think he won 87 Tests in 99, which is absurd. It puts him in rarefied company, with the likes of Usain Bolt and Roger Federer, and players like Brodie Retallick weren’t far behind in not knowing how to lose.
So how were they successful for so long? Well historically, the All Blacks have always done the right thing when it comes to the national team. They almost always made the right decision. If it meant resting players for five weeks during Super Rugby in a World Cup year, as they did in 2007, they’d do it. If it meant letting their star players head over to Japan to keep them fresh and well-renumerated, they’d do it. It would be for the common cause with no questions asked.
Indeed, for a time the All Blacks were so far ahead of everyone else that they even had books written about their ethos. Such was their success that they became the watchword for sporting excellence, which extended into the business space. I even saw recently The New York Times ran an editorial asking, ‘what’s happened to the All Blacks? The NYT was talking about them because they were seen as industry trailblazers. When you look at Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Nike and their books about leadership, the All Blacks were in the same bracket but somewhere along the line, they’ve dropped the ball.
I remember the last time they wobbled, when they finished last in the Tri-Nations. It was in 2004 when they lost 40-26 to South Africa. After it, hey had a now-famous three-day brainstorming session where they discussed which pathway they needed to take. There will surely be a similar reboot sooner than later, maybe even this weekend.
For nearly 20 years, the All Blacks promoted from within. When Graham Henry retired, Steve Hansen took over and then Foster, who himself had been part of the management team for eight years. It reminded me of Liverpool’s famed boot room with Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan but then they lost their way and it’s so difficult to get that aura back after you’ve created a legacy. Right now, it feels like the end of an era.
The unique thing with the All Blacks is that when you apply to become Kiwi head coach, you have to set out your vision to the board. Everything from, who your captain will be, which players you are going to use and what style of play you’re going to incorporate. You also have to make sure your staff are aligned 100 per cent, with no distractions. Take Tony Brown. He was originally on the Foster’s shortlist to help out, but he threw his in with Jamie Joseph and had to drop out. Now he’s got rid of John Plumtree and Brad Mooar, the vision he laid out is not the same as the one agreed in December 2019. If he bows to pressure and changes his captain then suddenly the pillars of your masterplan have crumbled and you’re in a bit of a hole.
That’s the thing I keep coming back to. With all that intellectual property how are they in the position they’re in now? How are they complaining about not having depth at blindside, or inside-centre? Where is their famed player depth? Why do they have so many inexperienced players on the field with the World Cup a year out? There are more questions than answers and it’s tough for the public to swallow.
The All Blacks have to refind that magic touch, and fast. They simply cannot afford to become also-rans. They are a serious sporting brand now with private equity investment and they have to find the answers.
On a human level, I do feel for Ian Foster. I’ve been in that position with the Springboks so I can talk with an informed view. When I lost four in a row, I’d lost Bakkies Botha to an Achilles problem, Schalk Burger to a broken neck while Jacques Fourie and Jean De Villiers had serious injuries. They were key players in big games we ended up losing against Australia, New Zealand and France. There was no respite. I felt the heat of losing my job because it’s simply not acceptable in countries like South Africa and New Zealand to keep losing. People joke about it, but it hurts the economy and takes smiles off the faces of the nation. It means that much.
I know the coach is getting flak but when Beauden Barrett and Jordie make mistakes under the high ball you can be damn sure that Ian Foster didn’t spend any less time with them working on their soft skills but when your luck is out, you don’t get the breaks. Instead, the Boks stuck to their gameplan and it was enough to close the game out comfortably.
As for Jacques Nienaber’s men, I don’t think they had to play outstandingly to win. They have a rock solid set-piece and pump the ball in the air ready to react depending if they get the bounce of the ball. That’s exactly how Kurt Lee-Arendse scored his try. It was a lofted kick from Handre Pollard that bounced out of Barrett’s hands under pressure from Arendse, fell to Lukhanyo Am, who put the wing away for an electric finish. It was a similar contest to the try Am set up for Cheslin Kolbe last year in the defining final Test, when the Lions failed to regather Ali Price’s kick. The Boks don’t have to change a thing. They believe in their style of play and will take it to the World Cup, where we will see if another team stops them by dominating their forwards, or at least gaining parity.
As for this weekend’s game, South Africa are talking about their greatest foe, so taking them lightly would be at their peril but they must embrace being favourites. The All Blacks are trying to find their mojo, and the Boks must try and rack up as many wins as possible in the meantime, like they did with us when we were going through a tough time. I remember back in 1998 – I’ve been around for a long time – when I went with Nick Mallett to New Zealand and we won 13-3 in Wellington. I think it was our 50th Test. At the time it was like 24 games each and a couple of draws. Now it’s 60-38 in the All Blacks favour. On Saturday, the coaches will be saying, ‘while they’re on the ropes, we need to make hay while the sun shines’.
The big advantage they have is really being shown with that 6-2 bench. Replacing the front row after 50 minutes gives them a real advantage. As a coach, I’d question that, because the laws were made for a 5-3 split. The lawmakers may need to think about enforcing that ruling. The way it’s going, what’s to stop it being a 7-1 bench, if you get a forward who is really athletic and use him in the backs? It’s funny, if the lawmakers enforced a 6-2 split, guys would be saying, I want 5-3 split and three backs. We know what head coaches are like!
If they can defeat New Zealand, they will go to Australia for a double-header and that will be another huge challenge. Rassie has been a phenomenal coach and he’s won a World Cup, but he’s never won a Test in Australia. That just shows how tough it is to win out there. They play them in Adelaide which is a different proposition to what they’re used to. First, however, to Ellis Park to see if the Boks can ram home their advantage and compound the All Blacks’ misery.
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