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The All Blacks lost their edge years ago

By Ned Lester
The All Blacks look on dejected during the International Test match between the All Blacks and Ireland. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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Recent All Blacks results have sparked an insecurity throughout New Zealand, the gravity of which hasn’t been felt in over a decade.

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The Irish gave the Kiwi’s a taste of their own medicine, not only securing their first ever series win on New Zealand soil but pushing their hosts to their lowest ever world ranking: fourth. Now, the All Blacks’ greatest foe, the Springboks, have added to the misery by pushing that ranking down another rung to fifth.

It’s not the most offensive ranking to receive, every other tier one nation has experienced worse. However, For New Zealand, you may as well have had Malcolm Marx run straight at every All Blacks supporter one by one and have Tadhg Beirne come through afterwards stealing the dazed masses’ shoes, all while maintaining his feet of course.

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The reaction from the fanbase has been brutal, New Zealand’s top coach, captain, and now CEO have all been targeted in a slew of online comments which, in typical comment section fashion, are more about expressing anger than writing a coherent sentence. The receding red mist then exposes a question that has the world’s most devoted rugby community wondering… Are the All Blacks getting worse, or is the rest of the world evolving at a greater pace than us?

Irish players and pundits alike were quick to mention that the polished and powerful team we see today is a side years in the making. Starting way back under Joe Schmitt’s leadership, a culture was built, from there, a brand of winning rugby has blossomed. Amplified of course by Andy Farrell’s talents, the Irish have strengths in all the right areas and their few weaknesses seemed to dissolve following the game one review session.

New Zealand’s descent to the repulsive position of fifth best team should be viewed as an inverse of Ireland’s rise to the top, with the key turning point being 2017’s British and Irish Lions series.

In the six years prior to the Lions tour, New Zealand lost only four matches. In the next two years leading into the 2019 World Cup, there were another four losses capped by a semi-final demolition at the hands of Eddie Jones’ England.

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Since then, throughout a Covid-laden schedule, the All Blacks have lost eight games. The gradual unraveling of the All Blacks has absolutely been a result of the rest of the world evolving at a greater rate, thanks in large part to the rush defense Warren Gatland’s all-star side debuted in 2017.

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Only in temporary spurts have the All Blacks looked to be comfortable winners since 2017. The attacking cross kick had its moment, the dual playmaker model didn’t achieve much and most recently, hitting the third man off the pod.

All tactics provided more of a momentary relief rather than any sustainable recipe for success. While the All Blacks have been trialing subtle changes, the rest of the world has had five years to evolve and perfect their versions of the rush defense, and judging by recent results, they’ve done a very good job.

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This isn’t just a physical shift, there’s been five years of dominance slowly slipping through the All Blacks’ fingers. Five years of cracks appearing in what was once an impenetrable wall. Five years of the free flowing, broken play heroics that lies so intrenched in the All Blacks identity being increasingly nullified.

Within the camp, it’s taken a toll. Outside New Zealand, it’s breathed life into what is now a founded belief that the black mountain is not just surmountable, but some sturdy boots have worn a jogging track into the side which is now considered a great spot for a Saturday stroll.

It’s all well and good theorizing how a dominant forward pack could provide front foot ball, execute at the breakdown and disrupt the rush defense, giving the backs an actual chance to pass the ball to each other.

But the All Blacks don’t have a dominant forward pack, and even their dominant ball runners are either waiting in the wide channels (Akira Ioane) or receiving the ball completely flatfooted with three of the oppositions hardest hitters charging straight at them (Ardie Savea).

A loyal few remain optimistic, hoping these “little changes” both Ian Foster and Sam Cane keep mentioning are the foundational pieces that allow this team to employ a gameplan we haven’t had a chance to see yet.

That optimism is founded on there being a solution to the rush defense hiding just behind the curtain, ready to make its grand entrance once the time is right. However, if the comment section crew are right about Foster, then you’d hope NZR commit to the rebuild.

However, problems that are this long in the making rarely offer quick fixes, if the All Blacks are to get back to their winning ways, it’ll take some real Kiwi ingenuity.

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