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The All Blacks' days of dominance are over unless they can learn how to win low-scoring tests

By Finn Morton

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The All Blacks’ days of dominating international rugby like they have over the past decade appear to be over.

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That’s not to say that they can’t still be a quality winning team, but unless they address some increasingly problematic flaws, then the golden days are all but in the books.

In the post-Steve Hansen era, comparisons made between then and now have been loud and constant, with many calling for change following back-to-back losses for the first time since 2011.

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The Breakdown panel discuss if the All Blacks will win their final test of the year against the Pumas in Newcastle.
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The Breakdown panel discuss if the All Blacks will win their final test of the year against the Pumas in Newcastle.

The All Blacks used to be feared, and they had the dominance to back that up. Under Hansen, they lost just 10 games during his eight years in charge, which included a winning percentage of just under 92 over his first four seasons.

But even that’s a sign of how the cracks were starting to appear.

Hansen lost just three games over his four years, but lost seven in his second World Cup cycle with the then world champions.

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Just a year after he finished coaching the national side, the current squad have only won two from five matches, which sees them currently ranked as the 10th worst All Blacks team ever going off winning percentage from a test year.

That’s not to say that they can’t bounce back, though.

This all comes down to one unpalatable and ironic change that’s needed.

The All Blacks need a game plan where they can score under 20 points and still win.

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During their dominant reign over the rugby world, it was commonly said by both fans and pundits that to beat the All Blacks, you needed to score more than 20 points – if not four or more tries. But recent results, including Hansen’s last few years, would suggest that’s been flipped on its head, yet we haven’t really seen much change.

From 2016 to now, in 44.44 percent of the matches they’ve lost, the men in black haven’t managed to score 20 points or more. But other losses included a 21-24 loss to the British and Irish Lions in Wellington, 26-47 to Australia in Perth where they played most of the test a man down after a red card to Scott Barrett, and 22-24 to the Wallabies in Brisbane two weeks ago.

These were all matches they were expected to win.

What’s more telling is that they’ve only won two tests following the 8-7 Rugby World Cup final win over France in 2011 by scoring fewer than 20 points. Those matches were a 14-10 win over South Africa in Wellington in 2014, and the 16-15 victory over England at Twickenham in 2018.

The facts are that teams who follow their game plan, are disciplined, passionate and take their opportunities, tend to beat the All Blacks, even in tight matches.

As Sir John Kirwan said following the 15-25 loss to the Pumas in Sydney, “England showed the blueprint to beating the All Blacks in the World Cup. Get off your line, make your tackles, put them under pressure.

“We saw that last time [in the loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane] and we saw it tonight. If you do that, the All Blacks have no backup plan.”

The strange of how to beat the All Blacks has been supported by officiating over the past few years, specifically with the offside line. It seems as if three or more opposition can be in a line, even if they’re well offside, then they’ll face no sanction.

But that’s an issue in itself which I won’t delve into here.

The problem has also been made worse by the laws that were trialled in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and how that may be affecting players when they return to play under traditional laws.

In the domestic competition, the offside line was much stricter, simply penalising players if they looked offside. This gave playmakers such as Richie Mo’unga, Jordie Barret, and Otere Black the opportunity to make decisions with more time.

Strategies and selections were based on this, as it allowed all teams to play with the near trademark attacking flair that has made New Zealand rugby so successful.

But these laws aren’t real rugby.

The PRO14, Gallagher Premiership and all other Northern Hemisphere competitions have been playing traditional rugby, where they’re forced to play with less space, less time, all the time.

As a result the All Blacks style of play is very much under threat, and is so by an increasing number of international rivals.

A rise in disappointing results can also be put down to ill-discipline; there’s always going to be plenty of pressure when you don the black jersey I’m sure, but when the going gets tough, frustration has been clear for all spectators to see.

I mentioned the red card to Scott Barrett in Perth, he was also yellow a few weeks ago for a professional foul in Brisbane. That card came when the match was very much in the balance, and followed the red card to Ofa Tuungafasi earlier in the match.

Sonny Bill Williams was also shown a red card against the Lions in Wellington; only five All Blacks have ever been shown red cards and three of them have been given since the 2017 Lions tour.

I’m not going to go through the numerous yellow cards we see every year, but you know where I’m going with this: discipline has never been this much of an issue for the All Blacks, and they’re starting to pay the price.

As well as the issues with the offside line and ill-discipline, I’ve got to ask this as well: where’s the drop goal been? Especially in tight tests, why they seemingly refuse to take this option is perplexing.

On top of the nine losses from 2016 to now, they’ve been involved in three draws, those being against the British and Irish Lions in 2017 (15-all), against the Springboks in 2019 (16-all), and to Australia last month (16-all).

All of these felt like losses to All Blacks’ fans.

Against the Lions and Wallabies, the All Blacks tried running in tries to score the winning play.

Also don’t forget, three of the eight losses were also by three points or less.

Yet the All Blacks haven’t had a key, game-changing drop goal taken and converted since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final against Australia at Twickenham. Against the run of play, when they were on the back foot, pivot Dan Carter famously knocked one over from 40 metres out.

But now, it’s not even a plan B for them – it’s a talking point a losing dressing room after the match. Needing one though isn’t anything new, which makes the recent run of form and inaction by the coaching staff simply disappointing.

Going into last year’s World Cup in Japan, the All Blacks had a very experienced coaching and playing group who spent years preparing for the sports penultimate event, yet they failed. So what chance does the current squad have, considering their inexperience? None.

Adjustments to the All Blacks game are then a must. Contrasting to the past, the men in black have to kick more rather than trying to run it from anywhere, they need to consider drop goals and other means of scoring, and they have to practice new means of creating pressure.

While this is obviously a massive ask to ultimately reconsider what’s made themselves so great, it’s time to stop playing the style of rugby that they were five years ago.

Other teams are constantly improving and innovating, and to win the big games and by tight margins if need be, then it’s time the All Blacks start doing the same.

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The All Blacks' days of dominance are over unless they can learn how to win low-scoring tests

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