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Mark Robinson: Number one world ranking not the focus for the All Blacks

By Mark Robinson
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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The All Blacks relinquished the world number one ranking after losing to the Springboks on the Gold Coast but they claimed the silverware that mattered most with a seventh Rugby Championship title.

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Having played for the All Blacks, and been part of the environment from 1997 to 2001, I know that holding the number one world ranking doesn’t worry All Black players too much.

The focus is instead on the process. The class of 2021 is building, developing and growing as a team of youngsters that have come through over the last few years. I don’t feel New Zealand are peaking too early two years out from the next World Cup and 2022 will prove a different story with other teams more prepared.

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If Australia were to have played New Zealand again in the Rugby Championship this term, I think it would have been a completely different game and they would really have tested the All Blacks. It takes a while for a new coach at international level to get what he wants in terms of how they play.

Dave Rennie has a certain coaching style and he loves the mix of play from kicking to running. He wants the forwards to be able to mix with backs and it’s very much a New Zealand-style of rugby.

The Australian forwards’ skill levels have gone up and we are seeing them in the midfield and playing out-wide. They are looking confident enough to pass balls, shift and find space. In the backs, Quade Cooper is driving the Wallaby evolution and they have some good youth coming through which is great to see. Along with France, I think Australia will be a serious contender for the 2023 World Cup.

In terms of the All Blacks, with Ian Foster at the helm of the coaching staff he hasn’t changed much. There is a way in New Zealand when it comes to the national team that the likes of Foster and assistants John Plumtree, Scott McLeod and Brad Mooar aren’t really coaching.

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It’s more about making sure that the environment is conducive to high performance and brings the best out of the players. At that level, you can’t really coach the players because they are so talented. It’s more about giving them a game plan and then the freedom to be able to play.

The players are custodians of the jersey and, as an All Black, you are taught that you need to leave it in the best place possible whenever the time comes for you to exit the Test arena. There is a mana – Maori for pride and respect – coupled with a sense of responsibility that comes with wearing the iconic All Black jersey.

I think that is where New Zealand gets it right, and Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith were amazing at communicating and bringing out the best of players by finding that extra one per cent. The All Blacks chase those one inch gains, whether from a mental or performance perspective. It’s not about changing the players but ensuring that they believe in themselves and play to their expected skillset.

Five years ago, the All Blacks boasted the world’s best in terms of players and had some young bucks coming through. Fast forward to 2021 and I think there is some phenomenal talent in the All Black team. The depth in New Zealand is incredible at the moment in terms of the players they can select.

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There is plenty of youth in the All Blacks team at the moment and within two years, and at the next Rugby World Cup in France, that group is going to be very experienced. If they can retain the core of the squad and build them up to the World Cup in 2023, I predict that is when they will really start to show that leadership, development and all the investment that the coaching staff has put into them.

When it comes to the All Blacks’ half-back options beyond Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara is a fantastic player but when he started against the Springboks in Townsville I thought his passing was laboured.

When Brad Weber came on, it was noticeable how he zipped those passes out. Perenara is right on the heels of Smith in terms of his all-round game but Weber gave his teammates much more time on the ball. And when you come up against a rush defence like the Springboks’ you need those passes in hand as swiftly as possible so that the receiving player can adjust and potentially beat the defender.

In terms of current weaknesses, the All Black scrum and line-out got caught out a bit against the Springboks over the two Tests. The All Blacks are clearly missing Sam Whitelock, who is such a strong figure that controls the line-out. As far as the scrum is concerned, it’s a bit of an Achilles’ heel for the men in black.

The set-piece has traditionally proved a strength of the Kiwis so it wasn’t great seeing that against the South Africa but the coaches will address it as a work-on ahead of the year-end tour.

Mark ‘Sharky’ Robinson, who was a dual-code international for New Zealand, featured in three Tests for the All Blacks. After turning out for the Chiefs and Blues in Super Rugby, he played for Northampton Saints and Wasps in the UK. He retired in 2010 and currently lives on the Isle of Man.

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