No questions about passion, but New Zealand's stalwart forwards look like spent forces
England so comprehensively outplayed New Zealand from start to finish that it’s hard to be too despondent.
There were warning signs heading into the competition that the All Blacks wouldn’t have quite such an easy time of it as they did in 2015 when they cantered to their second title in a row.
New Zealand fans are disappointed, that much is true, but there was no real heartbreak. The All Blacks were bested by a better team that simply played out of their skins.
Or is that giving too much credit to the English? There’s no question that Eddie Jones’ side were on the top of their game, but have the All Blacks escaped some fairly justified criticism on the back of their second loss of the year?
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2019 is on track to be New Zealand’s statistically worst year since 2009 (and 2019 will work out as worse if Wales do the unthinkable and get up over the All Blacks on Friday).
That would have likely been forgotten if Steve Hansen’s men had soldiered on and won an unprecedented fourth World Cup title, but it all fell to pieces against England over the weekend.
Yes, England’s forward pack did monster their Kiwi opposites and yes, Jones’ charges did play out of their skin, but that doesn’t mean the world’s highest-ranked team over the last four years shouldn’t have been capable of countering the white wave they found themselves facing.
It seems unfair to single out particular players as New Zealand’s pack was widely dominated as a whole. When you’re faced with such a monstrous challenge, however, it’s up to your leaders to stand up – and that simply didn’t happen on Saturday.
Outgoing captain, Kieran Read, and his second-in-command, Sam Whitelock, were the two players that the All Blacks desperately needed big games from.
Read, once widely considered the best number 8 in the world, has fallen off the pace in a big way in recent seasons.
That’s nothing to do with his desire or his want, it’s simply what happens to aging athletes – especially ones who have suffered as many injuries as Read has.
“He’s a special player,” Hansen said of the All Blacks captain during the week. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with him for a long, long time.
“We identified early that he’d be the next leader after Richie. He played a lot of rugby in a position that’s tough; he’s a charismatic leader, the boys and the management all love him, have a huge amount of respect for him.
“People won’t understand just how hard it was for him to come back from his back injury. To come back into the form he’s shown speaks volumes for him. He was really driven to do well and have the team do well and I think you can see the hurt when he’s spoken since (the semi-final defeat).
“But the same guy’s got up and led the team really well this week, so that’s a mark of his character.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 31, 2019
The injury that Hansen is referring to is the prolapsed lumbar disc that Read suffered at the end of the 2017 season. The diagnosis was so severe that Read struggled to walk at times, let alone play professional rugby. It kept him bedridden for New Zealand’s final Test of the 2017 year against Wales.
Surgery to fix the issue kept Read out of the game for four months, but even that won’t necessarily have fixed the long-term problem for the loose forward.
Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Rodney Gordon spoke to the NZ Herald at the time of Read’s injury and suggested that surgery would be an excellent short-term fix, but reoccurrences of the symptoms are fairly common.
The mere fact that Read is still playing is a testament to his character, and there are no questions concerning his ability to lead and motivate his team, but was the 34-year-old really New Zealand’s best hopes of pinning a World Cup on?
The man is still tactically as good as he’s ever been and musters the All Blacks’ defensive line well, but his physicality and presence took a noticeable hit after returning from his back injury and it’s waned even further in 2019.
Regardless, Read served New Zealand incredibly well throughout his 124 match lifetime for the All Blacks and will be well-remembered for his physicality and diverse skill-set – especially during the peak of his career. The Crusaders’ centurion will now head to Toyota Verblitz to see out his playing days in the fairly cruisey Japan Top League competition.
Whitelock, Read’s understudy for the All Blacks, is also going to be spending more time in Japan once the World Cup concludes and will turn out for the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Top League.
Unlike Read, Whitelock will be back to play for the All Blacks in 2020.
The 31-year-old signed a bumper contract in May which will see him give four more years to New Zealand rugby, until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Whitelock will spend the first part of next year in Japan, sitting out Super Rugby, then return for the Test season.
The contract was initially considered a great coup for New Zealand Rugby, but there must be a few executives around the country nervously thinking back on Whitelock’s underwhelming season.
Hansen and his fellow coaches obviously have the utmost respect for Whitelock, instilling him as match-day captain when Read has been absent, but they’ve also seemingly cordoned on to the fact that he’s not the force he once was.
Twice this year, Whitelock has been pulled from the field when New Zealand have been chasing a lead: against Australia and against England. The last time that Whitelock was subbed when the All Blacks were behind on the scoreboard, prior to this year, was in 2014. It’s only happened three times since Hansen took over as head coach.
The fact that the All Blacks have had an overall worse season obviously makes it more likely that Whitelock’s visits to the sideline will coincide with losses, but that overlooks the fact that Whitelock also simply wasn’t up to standard in both those fixtures.
Gone are the days of the big hits and rampaging runs from the man who was New Zealand’s answer to France’s Sébastien Chabal.
Whitelock, like Read, still has a massive engine and is busy around the park, but the physical dominance just isn’t there – which is why the All Blacks weren’t able to compete with England on Saturday.
Simply put, he looks like a tired, tired man.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Whitelock has had one of the busiest workloads of any Southern Hemisphere footballer over the last four years and whilst he may not yet be past his best, he certainly looks like he’s in need of a rest. It was no more evident than in 2018 when Whitelock was out on his feet after the All Blacks’ loss to Ireland at the end of a long season.
Despite the less taxing demands of the Top League, Whitelock is still going to be running around the field each week-in, week-out next season.
Richie McCaw, the world’s most capped rugby player, also built a clause into his contract when he hit 31 that would let him spend some time away from New Zealand, but McCaw used that time to rest his mind and body.
When Whitelock returns for the All Blacks’ Tests against Wales and Scotland next year, will he come back a rejuvenated force, or will he be in much the condition he’s in now?
If it’s the latter, then the new All Blacks coach would be better pressed finding a new locking partner for Scott Barrett, who will be New Zealand’s only premier lock playing Super Rugby next season as Brodie Retallick will also be in Japan.
Whitelock isn’t down and out, but he looks significantly off his best and it would be a major surprise at this point if he made the next World Cup simply based on his current form.
If Whitelock doesn’t pick up his game then we will be looking at similar situations to when the likes of Rodney So’oialo and Julian Savea signed long-term, big-money contracts with New Zealand then spent the latter parts of their deals representing provincial teams due to significant losses in form.
New Zealand were comprehensively taken apart by an English side that played the game of their lives, but that doesn’t mean the All Blacks couldn’t have done better. New Zealand’s experienced, battle-hardened forwards were absolutely dominated by their counterparts and nothing will change in the future if reviews don’t identify the physicality that the All Blacks were completely lacking compared to the pack they came up against.
Former All Black Justin Marshall has lifted the lid on what goes down during a bronze final week:
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